Srdja Popovic, 76, Serbian Champion of Rights, Dies
Marko Cvetkovic/Esquire Serbia
Published: November 2, 2013
Srdja Popovic, a Serbian lawyer and celebrated human rights advocate who pressed for reform and free speech for five decades, first under Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia and later under the strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his successors, died on Tuesday in Belgrade. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his family’s law firm, Popovic, Popovic, Samardzija & Popovic, which was founded by his father, Miodrag, in 1933.
Mr. Popovic’s principal work was representing commercial clients, many of them international. But in the late 1960s he began a side career defending writers, artists and political dissidents who dared to criticize Communist Yugoslavia. By the mid-1970s he had become one of the accused — and something of an international cause célèbre because of it.
In March 1976, Mr. Popovic was sentenced to a year in prison for “maliciously spreading false information and causing public disorder,” the Communist authorities declared. His supposed crime was agreeing with the views of a client, a dissident and poet named Dragoljub S. Ignjatovic.
The charges stemmed from courtroom arguments that Mr. Popovic had made two years earlier, when he tried to introduce evidence supporting Mr. Ignjatovic’s claim that Yugoslavia’s economic policies were failing.
Less than two weeks after Mr. Popovic was sentenced, and after international human rights and legal groups had publicized his case, a group of 106 prominent American lawyers signed a petition asking President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia to free him.
The signers included Ramsey Clark, the attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson; Telford Taylor, a lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War II; and Cyrus R. Vance, the president of the New York City Bar Association, who would be named secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter the next year.
An appeals court suspended Mr. Popovic’s sentence in late May, though it banned him from practicing law for a year.
Mr. Popovic (his full name is pronounced SIR-ja POE-pa-vich) went on to represent more dissidents. In 1984, he was asked to defend many of the so-called Belgrade Six, a group of Yugoslavs charged with holding meetings for the purpose of “abolishing the existing government.”
The dubiousness of the charges — the meetings were public and had gone on for years — and the Yugoslav authorities’ treatment of Mr. Popovic drew international attention. As he was preparing his case, prosecutors listed him as a potential witness, disqualifying him under Yugoslav law from serving as a defense lawyer.
After Yugoslavia splintered and Mr. Milosevic rose to power in the late 1980s advocating Serbian nationalism, Mr. Popovic was among the first to speak out against him. A magazine he started in 1990 — its title, Vreme, means “time” in Serbian — became a leading anti-Milosevic voice.
“When Milosevic ‘cleansed’ the media, we suddenly got a lot of reporters,” Mr. Popovic saidin a 2011 interview with a Slovenian weekly. “This was an excellent opportunity to do something.”
He left Yugoslavia the next year to live in the United States, in part because of the political climate under Mr. Milosevic. Later, as the Bosnian war expanded, he accused many Serbs, even opponents of Mr. Milosevic, of allowing Serbian nationalism to blind them to their complicity in widespread brutality.
“The people are sunk in their passivity because they know they are guilty,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “They know the lies they took in — they know they triumphed when Sarajevo was bombed. As a nation they have lost all self-respect.”
He returned to Belgrade in 2000, after Mr. Milosevic was ousted.
In recent years, he represented the family of the former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003. Mr. Djindjic, a reformer who sought alliances with Europe, allowed for Mr. Milosevic and others to be extradited to The Hague to face war-crimes charges. Mr. Popovic argued that the assassination was essentially a coup attempt by nationalist supporters that involved far more than the 12 members of the secret police and organized crime who were convicted in the killing in 2007.
Mr. Popovic was born on Feb. 24, 1937, in Belgrade. His name sometimes appears with the middle initial M., a Serbian custom that signifies the first letter of his father’s first name. He received his law degree from the University of Belgrade in 1961.
His survivors include his wife and four children. He is not related to a prominent younger man of the same name who was among the leaders of Otpor, a student group whose demonstrations helped lead to the ouster of Mr. Milosevic in 2000.
In the 1970s, Mr. Popovic was a founding partner of the World Association of Lawyers, which focused on international legal issues. In the 1980s he was part of a prominent group of lawyers who tried to end the death penalty in Yugoslavia, where executions were carried out by firing squad. In the early ’90s he was president of the European Movement in Serbia, which supports integration with the European Union.
Mr. Popovic represented a wide range of clients, not just those whose political views he might share. He represented people accused of war crimes and political leaders who supported brutal violence. In the shifting and often confusing alliances and divisions of Balkan politics, he said one constant should be the right of everyone to an honest justice system.
“My father had an idealistic understanding that a lawyer is most needed for those who have many enemies, and those are political prisoners,” he once said. “Against them are the media, the state, the court, the prosecution, and sometimes even their family.”