Journalist sentenced to seven years for 'spying'

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The Independent Online

In an ominous warning to independent media in Serbia, a Serbian journalist was sentenced yesterday to seven years in prison for spying for foreign organisations and spreading false news, the first such conviction in decades.

In an ominous warning to independent media in Serbia, a Serbian journalist was sentenced yesterday to seven years in prison for spying for foreign organisations and spreading false news, the first such conviction in decades.

Miroslav Filipovic was arrested in May after writing articles, including one in The Independent, detailing Serbian army atrocities against Kosovo Albanians during last year's Nato bombing campaign.

He worked for the independent Belgrade daily Danas from his home town in Kraljevo but also wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Announcing the sentence at the military court in Nis, 140 miles south of Belgrade, the judge, Colonel Radenko Miladinovic, said it was established "without any doubt that Filipovic collected, processed and sent military information, described as military secrets, to the foreign organisations IWPR and AFP."

"The degree of secrecy of the material Filipovic obtained and deliberately sent away was not important for this court. The important thing is that this information cannot be sent to foreign organisations," Colonel Miladinovic said. He added that information in Mr Filipovic's articles was "correct and true". The stories dealt with the organisation and restructuring of the Yugoslav army and their activities in Serbia and in the junior Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. His stories detailing the army atrocities in Kosovo, focusing on their "kill and burn" tactics in villages inhabited by ethnic Albanians, were aimed at creating dissatisfaction among the people, Colonel Miladinovic said.

Mr Filipovic's reports included testimony from a Yugoslav army commander who admitted watching a soldier decapitate a 3-year-old ethnic Albanian boy in front of his family. Another described how tanks indiscriminately shelled a Kosovo Albanian village before paramilitary police moved in and massacred the survivors.

The judge commented that other sensitive issues that Mr Filipovic tackled in his reports, including the conduct of Yugoslav army troops in predominantly Muslim villages in the troublesome Serbian region of Sandjak "were totally false".

"We did have a dilemma about the fact that any of those things were already available to the public", the colonel added. "But there will be time for those others responsible for publishing such information."

Mr Filipovic, 49, remained calm when the sentence was pronounced. Mrs Filipovic, the only member of the family to be present, sighed deeply after she heard the sentence.

"This is clearly a political case," his wife Slavica told The Independent after the verdict. "I am not surprised with the sentence. Pressure was obviously put on this court. My husband is not guilty."

Human rights organisations and Serbian independent journalists reacted with dismay. Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York said the ruling "is very much in keeping with Milosevic's desire to stamp out all independent voice in Yugoslavia."

Many Serbian journalists expressed concern with the harsh sentence. They said the case might force journalists to impose self-censorship.

Mr Filipovic's lawyer, Zoran Ateljevic, promised to use all legal means to prove his client's innocence.

"The harsh sentence is not based on law and it is groundless," he said. "Is it really espionage if a journalist writes about things that are already known to the public and signs his articles?"

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