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Serbia: elections not free and fair

(New York, September 15, 2000)-The September 24 elections in Yugoslavia and Serbia will not be free, and probably will not be fair, Human Rights Watch said today. In a 10-page press backgrounder, Human Rights Watch detailed the Yugoslav government's campaign of intimidation and violence against the opposition, and the fraudulent techniques it has used to steal past elections.

"The stakes could not be higher for Slobodan Milosevic," said Rachel Denber, Acting Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The government has transformed the election campaign into a siege against the opposition." Ms. Denber noted that as a war crimes indictee before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Milosevic needs a victory to lower the risk of being arrested and brought to trial.

During the September 24 elections Yugoslav citizens will simultaneously vote for a new president, federal parliament, and municipal assemblies. August polls indicate that only 20 to 25 percent of voters favor President Milosevic, with 35 to 40 percent supporting his challenger, Vojislav Kostunica.

The Yugoslav government utterly dominates the media, providing only meager access to the opposition. In a characteristic example, Politika, the main government-controlled newspaper, published an editorial calling leaders of the opposition "well-fed dogs," "a hodge-podge of nothingness," and "the garbage to throw out."

Police have interrogated high-ranking opposition activists, prevented them from holding town meetings, and even beaten some low-profile opposition candidates for municipal assemblies. Some 250 members of Otpor, a student-led group of Milosevic's opponents, were detained at the end of August and beginning of September.

Pro-government parties dominate election commissions and polling boards, which conduct the elections. In the Federal Electoral Commission and district electoral commissions, the pro-government members outnumber opposition by six to one. All polling boards, which run the voting at polling stations, are dominated by members of Milosevic's coalition.

Yugoslav election law facilitates fraud. It bans comprehensive opposition vetting of the printing of ballots at the state-owned printing house, Politika. Watermarks on all ballots are identical, rather than specific to each polling station, which increases the possibility of the accumulation of ballots that are unaccounted for. There is no exhaustive list of voters' names and I.D. numbers, making it virtually impossible to identify persons registered in more than one polling station or election district. Voters do not countersign the voting register; instead, a polling board member simply circles the number next to the name of the voter casting his or her ballot, which facilitates ballot stuffing. Voting results are expressed only in digits, not in words; in well-documented cases during the 1996 and 1997 elections, digits were simply added to the numbers indicating the vote for the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, after the polling board had counted the votes.

According to reasonable accounts about 200,000 Kosovo non-Albanians are eligible voters. Serbian authorities are inflating the number to at least 350,000. Displaced persons and other Kosovo non-Albanians will vote at special polling stations throughout Serbia, apparently without the presence of the opposition at many of them. Voting by soldiers-whose number is estimated at between 100,000 and 300,000-remains under the exclusive discretion of the Yugoslav Army, and the opposition cannot vet for potential fraud.

Yugoslav authorities have turned down a request from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for monitoring of the September 24 elections. They also launched a vehement campaign against CESID, a well-trained and professional election-monitoring organization in Serbia, accusing it of being a NATO mouthpiece and carrying out police raids in CESID offices.

The backgrounder is available at .

Source: Human Rights Watch

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