Serbs release Vuk Draskovic: Opposition leader pardoned but he still faces charge that could bring five years in jail

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The Independent Online
BELGRADE - In a dramatic turnabout, Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic yesterday ordered the release of the main opposition leader, who doctors said was near death in police custody. State television said Mr Milosevic signed an official pardon, freeing Vuk Draskovic and his wife, Danica, who were jailed on 1 June after violent anti-Communist demonstrations in Belgrade.

Mr Draskovic still faces a charge which could lead to five years' imprisonment.

Police reportedly beat the Draskovics severely in custody. They were later hospitalised under heavy police guard.

Mr Draskovic, who had been on a hunger strike since 1 July, managed to wave to several hundred supporters from a window at the main Belgrade hospital late yesterday. He began accepting fluids intravenously after hearing the news that his release had been ordered.

Thousands of his supporters gathered on a downtown square to celebrate the couple's release, shouting 'Vuk, Vuk'.

When a group of reporters entered his room, the pale and weakened 46-year-old leader of the Serbian Renewal Party put a finger to his lips in a sign that he could not talk. He was expected to remain in the hospital for four or five more days.

'I'm happy because this will save my husband's life,' said his wife. 'We did not expect the pardon since we know who is ruling this country. Our struggle for democracy will continue when Vuk and I recover from this shocking experience,' she said. Asked why she thought Mr Milosevic ordered the release, she said: 'It's only because of the international outcry.'

Mr Milosevic overruled a Belgrade court's refusal earlier yesterday to free the couple. The court rejected an appeal by hospital doctors, who said that Mr Draskovic's condition was deteriorating as he refused water and medicine and that he could die in 'a matter of hours'.

Mr Draskovic and his wife faced up to 10 years in prison on charges of obstructing police and participating in violent demonstrations.

Mr Milosevic had earlier insisted that the case was not political and was strictly a matter for the courts. But as word of the Draskovic's plight spread, pressure mounted both in Serbia and from Western leaders to free the couple. The semi- official Tanjug news agency quoted Mr Milosevic as saying that he 'personally considers Draskovic guilty', but that the case 'had created an ugly picture' because of 'anti-Serbian propaganda . . . which was conducted by our enemies'.

He said he had pardoned Mr Draskovic for taking part in the violent demonstration, the more severe of the two charges, and indicated that he was pardoning his wife on both counts. But he said Mr Draskovic would still have to stand trial for what he termed a 'physical attack on a policeman,' for which he could get a five- year sentence if convicted.

(Photograph omitted)