To the Editors:

We are lawyers and teachers of law who traveled to Yugoslavia during the last several months under the auspices of the US Helsinki Watch Committee. We went to look into, and to make known our concern about, the arrests, the physical mistreatment, and the prosecution of intellectuals of widely varying points of view who, for several years, had participated in open, publicly announced, informal living-room seminars on a wide range of topics. The attempt to punish those who had taken part in these seminars (known somewhat grandly as Belgrade’s “free university”) apparently was an attempt by “hard-liners” in the Yugoslav government to end the relative freedom of thought and discussion that had prevailed in Belgrade.

One phase of this attempt at repression has just concluded: a trial that began last November 5, at which six men were accused of using the seminars to conspire to overthrow the Yugoslav government. It has ended with the conviction of three of them for the lesser crime of “hostile propaganda.” There was no allegation that the defendants engaged in violence or advocated the use of violence; nor did they even urge political action. Nevertheless, they were sentenced to prison terms of one to two years, oddly enough considered “light” by Yugoslav standards. Two others may be tried separately later on and the charges against one were dismissed entirely. Last July, another participant in the free university seminars was tried separately and sentenced to an eight-year prison term, which was reduced on appeal to four years.

An indication of what the Yugoslav hard-liners consider criminal is provided by the case of Milan Nikolic, a thirty-seven-year-old sociologist and Marxist theorist. He has been sentenced to eighteen months in prison for a paper he submitted while a graduate student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1982. In it, the Yugoslav prosecutor said, he “falsely asserts” that the Yugoslav Communist party was “firmly Stalinist” at the end of World War II and that presentday Yugoslavia has diverged from the path of true socialism. It was not established that anyone other than Nikolic’s faculty adviser at Brandeis ever read this paper. Initially, Nikolic was also charged with possessing and offering to let others read a draft of someone else’s article for the British journal New Left Review. This draft discusses the Yugoslav province of Kosovo and gives a “false account” of the circumstances leading to boundary changes during the Balkan wars in the early part of the twentieth century. This charge was dropped, however, and it was only the Brandeis paper that provided the basis for the eighteen-month prison term to which Nikolic was sentenced.

The trial itself was open. The Yugoslav public, the Yugoslav press and the foreign press, and observers from several countries were all permitted to attend. The defendants were vigorously assisted by defense counsel. All the same, even assuming—as we do not—that the charges against these defendants could warrant criminal convictions, it was not a fair trial. Out of a score of witnesses chosen by the prosecution from more than a hundred who were detained and interrogated by the secret police, only one supported the contention that there was anything secret or secretive about the seminars in which the defendants participated. And that witness recanted earlier contrary testimony. The other witnesses for the prosecution contradicted or failed to support this contention. Even so, the court said it would give credence only to the witness who recanted.

What took place in Belgrade from November 5, 1984, until February 4, 1985, was a political “show trial.” The script that was followed by the court was written elsewhere, apparently in the office of the presidency, which governs Yugoslavia, or in the offices of the Communist party. As the trial dragged on, and as the charges and the evidence to support them seemed increasingly ridiculous to the Yugoslav public and to the many in Western Europe and in the United States who followed the proceedings, the script was apparently altered. The one- to two-year sentences seem to strike a balance between the Yugoslav government’s need to avoid ignominious retreat and its need to appease domestic and international opinion that has been outraged by this case. Outright acquittal would have been without precedent in a political trial in Eastern Europe.

Though the reduction in charges was welcome, our own outrage is not diminished. We will support efforts to overturn the sentences against Miodrag Milic, Milan Nikolic, and Dragomir Olujic, who were convicted on February 4; to secure dismissal of the charges against Vladimir Mijanovic and Gordon Jovanovic, who face separate trials; and to secure the freedom of Vojislav Seselj, whose sentence was reduced on appeal to four years. In addition, we will press for an end to the harassment of the lawyers in Yugoslavia who defend those charged with political crimes.

One of the defense lawyers in the Belgrade case, Vladimir Seks, himself faces a seven-month prison sentence and disbarment for remarks he allegedly made in a café in 1981 denigrating the Yugoslav system. Yugoslavia’s most prominent defense lawyer, Srdja Popovic, was prevented from acting in this case by the prosecution, which listed him among potential witnesses. After a raid on one of the seminars last April 20, during which twenty-eight persons were arrested, Popovic was himself taken into custody and interrogated for twelve hours. His office and his home were searched and notes on his conversations with his clients were confiscated.

In our visits to Belgrade, it became evident to us how much independent Yugoslav intellectuals value the support that they received from their counterparts in the West. They meticulously compiled and circulated lists of the names of all the Western intellectuals who signed letters and petitions expressing support for their rights. Though we can only conjecture about the effect that this support had on the Yugoslav authorities, we know that it had a great impact on the morale of the defendants and their friends. The free university seminars started again in late January after a pause of nine months, an important indication that the spirit of freedom has not been crushed in Yugoslavia.

As to the Yugoslav authorities, we hope they will recognize that their failure to honor a commitment to freedom of opinion and open discussion is not free of costs. They tarnished their country’s reputation by their crackdown on the free university. In addition, they should know that we in the West who are concerned about the arrests will call on our own governments and on international agencies to take into account repression in Yugoslavia in their dealings with the Yugoslav government.

Charles Biblowit

Adrian DeWind

Russell Karp

Aryeh Neier

Helsinki Watch

New York City

This Issue

March 14, 1985