Friday 15 November 2013 12.37 GMT
The Serbian civil rights lawyer and campaigner Srdja Popovic, who has died aged 76, believed passionately in legal process as a foundation stone of any democracy. He maintained that Serbia had to come to terms with the crimes committed in its name before it could achieve catharsis and a democratic order.
In the 1970s and 80s, before the breakup of the Yugoslavia that had been led by Josip Broz Tito, he defended figures ranging from the future Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic – for trying to establish a student opposition movement – to the future Chetnik warlord Arkan. His determination to defend even those with the most unacceptable views became so uncongenial to the government that he was banned from court work for a year.
In the late 80s, Popovic became increasingly identified as a representative of opposition forces in Belgrade, though he never joined a political party and rejected the label of “dissident”. He campaigned on behalf of numerous Albanian students subjected to judicial persecution, after the federal authorities deployed tanks against peaceful protests in Kosovo in 1981. The fight for a just resolution of the “Kosovo problem” – the tension between Serbia and Kosovo over the latter’s status within the federation – was to become a major concern, culminating in his 1989 book The Kosovo Knot. This provided hard figures challenging the alleged “mass enforced exodus” of Serbs from the still autonomous province, a favourite complaint of Serb nationalists seeking to roll back the gains Kosovo had made under the 1974 federal constitution.
In 1990, horrified by the exacerbated nationalism of the now firmly ensconced regime of Slobodan Milosevic and by the popular support it enjoyed, Popovic established the weekly magazine Vreme (Time), which for a decade was one of the country’s principal independent voices. Although he left to do legal work in New York in 1991, he remained closely in touch with events in Serbia, and in September 1993, at the invitation of the poet Joseph Brodsky, joined some 100 public figures in signing an open letter to President Bill Clinton calling for limited air strikes against Serbian military targets, to impair Belgrade’s involvement in Bosnia. He was duly excoriated for “national treason” – although the letter fell short of what he thought was needed to stop Milosevic.
In 1999, he was outspoken in his support for Nato bombing to halt Belgrade’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo – action that made possible the emergence of today’s independent country. Once Milosevic had fallen in 2000, Popovic went back, even though he did not believe that the regime had been overthrown along with its strongman.
Born in Belgrade to Dana and her lawyer husband Miodrag – who had defended communist victims of repression in interwar, royalist Yugoslavia – Srdja gained a law degree from the University of Belgrade in 1961. Initially he worked for commercial clients, but was soon also representing literary, artistic and political critics of the communist government. A rhyme that followed the student demonstrations of 1968 – along the lines of “Walls, walls, I’m sitting in a jail cell, Call Srdja the lawyer to get me out of this hell” – pointed to his emergence as the country’s leading human rights lawyer.
After Popovic’s return from New York, his activism entered a third phase, when he felt compelled to part company with many old friends, notably those associated with Vreme, since he could not agree that with Milosevic’s departure the country had already become essentially a democracy. He found a new circle of like-minded people centred on the website Pescanik (Hourglass) and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.
On two points, Popovic was adamant. First, it was Serbia that bore the prime responsibility for destroying the post-1945 Yugoslav federation. The wars of 1991-95 were not a civil conflict, but “from the start an international conflict, because Serbia, according to its own constitution, became an independent state on 28 September 1990, ie more than a year before Slovenia’s and Croatia’s own proclamations of independence on 8 October 1991”. Talk of Croatian “separatism” was thus mere camouflaging rhetoric for an external audience.
Second, there was the need for catharsis, which convinced Popovic to spend his last years fighting to elucidate the political background to the 2003 assassination of Djindjic, who had become prime minister two years earlier, and whom Popovic had believed to be capable of taking Serbia in the right direction. This engagement led him to reject the notion that the incumbent president Boris Tadic (2004-12) deserved political support as the lesser evil in the 2012 elections; he could not forgive Tadic for blocking any interrogation of high-level political figures associated with the former president Vojislav Kostunica in connection with what he saw as not just an assassination but an attempted coup. Kostunica denied that there had been any such involvement.
Popovic is survived by his architect wife, Natalija, three daughters and a son.
• Srdja Popovic, lawyer and civil rights activist, born 24 February 1937; died 29 October 2013