What befell Sonja Biserko last September sent a shiver down progressive Serbia's spine. It was a Sunday morning. She was returning home from a walk with her small dog. As she approached her building, she saw two men standing in the street. She thought their "neat dress" odd. One man approached her and said he was looking for "the lawyer". Alarmed, she found refuge in a nearby shop and phoned a colleague, watching through the window as one of the men entered her building. Her colleague arrived, went upstairs and found the second man in the hallway outside Biserko's apartment. Her colleague asked him what he was waiting for. The man left.
The following day a national tabloid newspaper published a long letter abusing Biserko, written in his cell by Serbia's most famous prisoner, Milorad Ulemek, better known as 'Legija' because he served in the French Foreign Legion. A cult hero for Serb supremacists and a commander of the notorious Scorpions, Legija was convicted two years ago for the March 2003 assassination of pro-democracy prime minister Zoran Djindjic. After three years' "hiding" in a Belgrade basement, he surrendered and was closeted in a private meeting with Dragan Jocic, the interior minister (minister for justice), after his arrest, lending credence to suspicions that the prime minister's assassination was part of a political conspiracy. Legija has written seven books in jail, including best-sellers.
For more than a week after his open letter to Biserko was published, the media was saturated with vituperative correspondence denouncing her as "a Croatian lesbian" and a "Stalinist" US-paid "Serbophobe". Her home address was published in newspapers. Internet blogs clamoured for her "assassination". Swastikas were plastered on the door of her office. "It was a license to kill," believes fellow human rights lawyer Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, whose own organisation formally requested the secret service conduct a risk assessment for Biserko, which it is obliged to do by law. No reply has been received. Biserko was given state protection, but it was withdrawn after two weeks. A benefactor now pays for a bodyguard to protect her.
And her crime? Her organisation, the Belgrade branch of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, published in its annual report the names of 52 law professors who espoused non-cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The strange thing about it was that the report was published last May, eliciting not a single public comment. Known as 'Sonja's List', copies are like gold dust, such has been the demand generated by the controversy that erupted in September. Significantly, what has befallen Sonja Biserko is the first chink in what appears to be a real push towards democracy under the Socialist Party since taking power in May.
"I am not in danger from the people in the street," says Biserko, who resigned from the Serbian diplomatic corps in the 1990s to join the anti-war movement. "I am in danger from an organised group. This is some kind of desperate final phase. Our organisation will not stop. We will publish our annual report again next year, with a chapter about the campaign orchestrated against me. It will be tough. This is the last, lethal phase in the struggle between nationalism and us."