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Trial Of Serb For Attack On NY Student Postponed

DUSAN STOJANOVIC   06/28/10 11:57 AM ET   AP

Miladin Kovacevic Photo

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serb judges on Monday postponed until September the trial of a former college basketball player charged with beating an American student into a coma and then fleeing to his native Serbia after jumping bail in the U.S.

Miladin Kovacevic, accused of inflicting severe bodily harm with possible deadly consequences on Bryan Steinhauer after a barroom brawl in May 2008 in upstate New York, told judges Monday he would not enter his plea without the presence of his lawyer.

The lawyer said earlier he could not attend the hearings because he was busy with other cases. A former Serb diplomat, accused of providing a false passport that helped Kovacevic flee from New York two years ago, also failed to show up at the trial as a co-defendant.

Judges then ruled to postpone the start of the trial until September.

"I will not make any statement without the presence of my lawyer," a relaxed-looking Kovacevic told the three-judge panel.

The case had strained U.S.-Serbian relations when Belgrade said it legally could not extradite one of its citizens to face trial in another country, including the United States. The Serbian government paid $900,000 (euro730,000) to Steinhauer's family as part of an agreement to try Kovacevic in Belgrade.

Hillary Rodham Clinton intervened in the case, first as U.S. senator and later as secretary of state, as did U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, to make sure Kovacevic was prosecuted.

On Monday, Schumer protested the judges' decision to postpone the trial, describing it as an attempt "to shield this thug from the consequences of his actions."

"I am increasingly concerned that Serbian authorities, Mr. Kovacevic, and his attorneys are playing legal games to evade justice," Schumer said in a statement. "This is why I always believed Kovacevic should be tried in the U.S."

"I will be watching like to hawk to make sure that Kovacevic doesn't get a free pass and the Serbian legal system holds him accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

Kovacevic, 23, is also charged with obtaining the fake passport to flee the United States after the fight in a bar near Binghamton University, which both men attended.

Kovacevic faces up to eight years in prison if convicted by the First Municipal Court in Belgrade.

Kovacevic, who weighs 260 pounds (118 kilograms), is accused of repeatedly kicking the 130-pound (59-kilogram) Steinhauer in the chest and head. Witnesses told New York police the two had exchanged harsh words after Steinhauer danced with the girlfriend of one of Kovacevic's friends.

The beating left the 24-year-old Steinhauer, of Brooklyn, New York, with skull fractures and a severe brain injury.

A U.S. court sentenced another two men of Bosnian origin in January to two years each in prison for taking part in the assault. The two admitted kicking Steinhauer, each pleading guilty to one felony count of assault.

Kovacevic (koh-VAH'-cheh-vich) escaped U.S. prosecution with the help of two Serbian diplomats who gave him the false passport. The two have been charged in Serbia with abusing their positions, and will be prosecuted in the same trial as Kovacevic.

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Filed by Leah Finnegan  |