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Speaking Openly in Serbia

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The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Serbia is comparatively low: 0.1 percent of the population compared to 0.6 percent in the United States, 1 percent in Russia, and 25 percent in Swaziland. Nevertheless, those who live with the disease report that they are stigmatized, ostracized, and have difficulties gaining access to treatment. Some are fired from their jobs; others are kicked out of their families.

Dragoslav Popovic is a lawyer who has worked for quite a few years on HIV/AIDS issues. He reports that the situation has marginally improved for people with the disease.

"The public perception was worse than it is nowadays," he told me in an interview in Belgrade last October. "Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it's free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I'm doing consulting with them, they don't even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don't confront the doctors and the medical staff, they'll just continue to do what they're doing. You have to stand up and tell them, 'You're not allowed to do that. That's confidential information.' So it's better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger."

Speaking openly has been a consistent theme in Dragoslav Popovic's life, from his self-assertiveness in grade school to his political activism during his university days in the movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Speaking openly has also meant taking somewhat unorthodox positions, at least compared to other democracy activists. He has taken a dim view of the Hague Tribunal, and he views Kosovo as Serbian territory. But he has also taken strong stands against Serbian chauvinism and homophobia.

During our conversation, we talked about the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the role of the Church in Serbia, and his attempts to change the minds of two of his friends, one a Serbian nationalist and the other a diehard follower of Milosevic's party.

The Interview

The big legal drama after Milošević resigned was whether he was going to go to The Hague or not go to The Hague.

I'm glad you mentioned that, because I have a slightly weird opinion on that.

I especially want to hear your weird opinion!

I basically felt that we should have a national trial on everything that he did. And then when we are done, and when he finishes the prison sentence, he can go wherever he wants. So, that was my personal opinion. Also, I didn't have a very high opinion of the Hague Tribunal. As a lawyer, I'd say that it doesn't function correctly. No court should be allowed to change its own rules.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean about changing the rules.

The Hague can change the rules about its own legal process. That's not the way it should be done. An independent body should write the rules about the process, not the court itself. Also, I felt that there should be a public debate about the law on extradition. At the time we didn't have any such law. There was only a rule that said that no foreign country should judge our citizens. Then we implemented the Hague Tribunal ruling directly on our system and decided to give Milošević away. I personally think that it was done in a rush, more to win some international points than to ensure that everything was done correctly from a legal point of view.

And I wasn't happy when he was there because the cells in the Scheveningen prison are more like a hotel room. And Milošević made so many people suffer here! I'm not a vengeful person. But if you do something wrong, you should have to do your sentence.

You said your opinion was a little weird. Is that because a lot of your friends had a different opinion?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.