Serbian families given legal aid to sue over TV studio bombing

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The Independent Online

The families of victims of the Nato bombing raid on a Belgrade television studio have been given legal aid to sue the United Kingdom and 16 other countries over allegations that the attack was illegal under European law.

A Colchester law firm has been instructed by the Serbian families to help win compensation and secure a ruling that would define the parameters for future Nato operations. At a test case to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg next month, British lawyers representing the Nato member states will challenge the court's jurisdiction before denying accusations that the countries breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The families' lawyer, Tony Fisher, said the legal aid had been awarded by the European court to help pay for legal representation to respond to Nato's "preliminary observations".

The attack on the studios in April 1999 was part of a 78-day bombing campaign designed to force the Yugoslav government of former president Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and stop the persecution of ethnic Albanians. Nato justified its attack on the television station, in which 16 died and at least 16 were injured, by saying that it was broadcasting propaganda that was being picked up and retransmitted by Western media.

Most of the casualties were production workers and one was a make-up artist. Among the victims was Ksenija Bankovic, 26, a video technician. Her mother and father are one of the four families who together with one survivor are taking the legal action.

Mr Fisher, whose firm was instructed because of its close links with the internationally renowned human rights centre at Essex University, said his clients had brought the action against 17 Nato states which "took part in or approved the attack". The two other member states of Nato – the United States and Canada – are not subject to the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The families claim the European Nato members breached the right to life and right of freedom of expression protected under the Convention. The application was first initiated by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.

The British Government and other Nato members have been asked to answer questions about what alternative action was open to them before they sanctioned the bombing. They have also been asked whether the attack constituted a use of "lethal force which was strictly necessary".

Under the court's rules, all 17 respondent states have now appointed a French judge as the "common interest" judge to help co-ordinate the case.

Mr Fisher said he hoped to receive further funding from the court to attend a preliminary hearing scheduled to take place on 24 October. He said the families' case was a "purely legal one" without political overtones.

British lawyers have already told the court that because the former Yugoslavia was not a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights the case was outside its jurisdiction.

The day after the attack Robin Cook, who was Britain's Foreign Secretary at the time, defended the action. "It is not enough for us simply to disrupt the poisonous propaganda of Milosevic," Mr Cook said. "It is just as important that we enable his people to learn the truth."

Tony Blair also defended the bombing. "These stations are part of Milosevic's apparatus of dictatorship and power which is used to do ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," he said.