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Ex-Chief of Serb State TV Gets Prison

Yugoslavia: Court finds him guilty of public endangerment in the deaths of 16 workers killed by NATO bombing in 1999.

June 22, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY and ZORAN CIRJAKOVIC | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The former head of Serbian state television was sentenced Friday to nearly 10 years in prison for failing to protect 16 employees killed by a NATO bomb in 1999.

A Serbian court ruled that Dragoljub Milanovic caused "grave danger to public security" by failing to evacuate the Radio Television Serbia building in Belgrade after the bombing began. Technicians, doormen and a makeup artist were killed in the precision nighttime attack.

"He failed to act according to regulations governing the safety of RTS, even though he was aware this could provoke danger for the lives of the people because NATO aggression had already started," said presiding Judge Radmila Dragicevic-Dicic.

The station formed a key part of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's power base. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization hit it April 23, 1999, as part of a 78-day bombing campaign aimed at forcing Milosevic to end his repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia, and is now under United Nations administration. Reformers ousted Milosevic in October 2000 and eight months later sent him to face a U.N. war crimes trial in The Hague.

Some relatives of victims have charged that Milosevic's government deliberately kept the television workers in danger because their deaths would score a propaganda coup. Milanovic was a high-ranking member of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia.

The Western alliance drew international condemnation after the bombing for deliberately targeting journalists.

"NATO's decision to target civilian broadcast facilities not only increases the danger for reporters now working in Yugoslavia, but permanently jeopardizes all journalists ... in international conflicts," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared at the time.

NATO defended its action with the argument that the state-run station's employees were propaganda workers participating in Milosevic's war effort.

Radio Television Serbia "is as much a part of Milosevic's murder machine as his army" because "it has stirred up nationalistic passions in the country," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said after the bombing.

Even as she sentenced Milanovic, Dragicevic-Dicic disputed NATO's argument. "I am not giving amnesty to NATO as the direct perpetrator of a serious criminal act against humanity," she said.

In the verdict, the judge said Milanovic had failed to obey a federal government order that institutions able to move to more secure reserve facilities during the state of war should do so.

Such facilities were available to RTS in a wooded suburb of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital.

"It was not up to you to assess the danger," the judge said. "There was an order, and you should have acted upon it."

Milanovic argued in a closing statement Thursday that bombing the suburban facilities would have been easier for NATO than hitting the main building in Belgrade.

"The indictment against me is beyond honor and reason," Milanovic told the court. "I really believed that NATO would not dare to commit a terrible crime against civilians. RTS was not a legitimate military target, and it was protected by international conventions. I thought that my employees, as civilians, were safe in a civilian installation.

"The legal representative of the families called me an executioner, monster and man-eater," he added, "but I claim that very soon the time will come when the prosecutor will be ashamed of the indictment."

Milanovic was sentenced to 9 1/2 years on the charge of failure to evacuate the station. He was given an additional six months' imprisonment for an unrelated financial charge.

After sentencing, Milanovic reiterated his innocence and said documentary evidence against him had been forged. He was not immediately imprisoned, but the judge ordered him not to leave Belgrade.

Defense attorney Branimir Gugl called the verdict "a disgrace to the entire legal system" and said Milanovic would appeal.

Milanovic "followed direct orders by the government and the head of state," Gugl added.

Some observers have interpreted this claim by Gugl as pointing a finger at Milosevic.

*

Times staff writer Holley reported from Rome and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Belgrade.

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