The first verdict against an individual responsible for organizing recruitment in the war at the Ukraine occupied territory was delivered by a court in Serbia in October, Radio Free Europe (RFE) has learned.
In the verdict of 22 October, 2021, which was submitted by the High Court in Belgrade to RFE on the request for free access to information of public importance, the accused was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison at home, without electronic supervision.
This is the first verdict of its kind in a country from which, according to estimates given by Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia Oleksandr Alexandrovich in a December 2018 , more than 300 citizens went to fight on the pro-Russian side in a conflict that has so far claimed about 14,000 lives.
Until now, the courts in Serbia have conducted proceedings only for fighting on a foreign battlefield, while for organizing the participation, no one was sentenced in the past.
The accused, as stated in the judgment of the High Court, pleaded guilty. The court then passed a conviction on the basis of a plea agreement.
In the document, however, the court hid the identity of the convict by obscuring all the details – from the first and last name, year of birth, residential address, as well as the names of other people.
“He is guilty that in the period between 18 October 2014 until mid-November 2014, in a state of sanity, aware of his crime and aware of its legal prohibition, with the intention of committing the crime of participation in war or armed conflict in a foreign country… encouraged other persons to commit this crime and organized a group of persons to commit this act, “the verdict reads.
Paid flight to Moscow is part of the arrangement
The convicted, according to the court ruling, contacted interested fighters in Serbia via social networks, and then “sent them via e-mails the airline tickets for the flight from Belgrade to Moscow”. Their names and surnames are also obscured in the verdict.
Then, according to the verdict, he gave them information about their further transfer from Moscow to Alcesca in Ukraine, which is under the control of pro-Russian forces, “so that the mentioned persons would take part in the war – the armed conflict on the territory of the Republic of Ukraine.”
It is also added that the defendant “previously joined the pro-Russian forces as a volunteer” in eastern Ukraine, and that in September 2014, together with another person from Colombia (whose name is also obscured in the verdict), founded the paramilitary formation “International Brigade”. (Unité Continentale) composed of Serbs, French and Spaniards.
The verdict states that the suspected was arrested on August 15, 2021, and that he was released from custody two days later. However, details are not given about how he was arrested and whether he surrendered himself to the Serbian authorities.
Kiev has been waging a war against Russian-backed separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine (Donbas) since 2014.
Russia, which denies involvement, annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in the same year, which is why it is under the sanctions of the European Union (EU).
All guilty verdicts
Participation and organization of participation in the war in a foreign country is a criminal offense from the beginning of the application of the amendments to the Criminal Code of Serbia from 2014, with threatened sentences and up to ten years in prison.
However, in this case, the court ruled under house arrest for six months, without the application of electronic surveillance.
Only for participation in the war in eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian forces, the High Court passed 32 convictions in the period from 2015 to 2018. All verdicts were passed on the basis of a plea agreement. In 28 cases, the court sentenced the defendants to probation, while four people were sentenced to house arrest for six months.
What is the ‘International Brigade’?
According to the verdicts received by RFE from the High Court in Belgrade, twelve of the thirty-two convicts were members of the “International Brigade” (Unité Continentale).
The document of the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine from 2018, which was submitted at the request of RFE, states that “Unité Continentale” is a geopolitical extreme right-wing movement, founded in the summer of 2014 in Belgrade and which criticizes the EU and NATO.
“Unité Continentale” is also present on social networks.
They have around 5,000 followers on Facebook, and in the announcements, they support Russian President Vladimir Putin and criticize the EU and NATO. Over the years, they have published videos of pro-Russian fighters from the battlefield in Ukraine.
In the posts they publish, there are frequent anti-immigrant messages, and they pay special attention to the countries of the Western Balkans.
Thus, for Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, they state without citing evidence, that it is “the backbone of Islamism and organized crime”, as well as that it is a “southern Serbian province confiscated by NATO”.
Among other things, they advocate Russia’s participation in “resolving the Kosovo crisis”, despite the fact that official Moscow is blocking Kosovo’s participation in international institutions. They also call for Serbia’s help to regain Kosovo.
In the war in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, according to the NGO Humanitarian Law Center, more than 13,000 people were killed, about 10,000 of them civilians. Of that number, more than 8,000 are Albanian civilians.
In their posts, they call Montenegro “a small Serbian state kidnapped by NATO”, which is a frequent rhetoric of right-wingers in Serbia and those who deny the independence of that state, which seceded from Serbia in 2006.
The media also mention that members of that extreme right-wing organization took part in the anti-government protests of “yellow vests” that shook France in 2018 and 2019, who protected “yellow vests from police repression”.
Who are the founders and members?
In the media, along with “Unité Continentale”, the names of two French citizens were mentioned – Viktor Lenta and Nikola Perović, French military veterans.
Lenta was reportedly fired from the army for his ties to a neo-Nazi group known for setting fire to a mosque in southern France in 2008, only to later go to Ukraine to fight as part of the far-right Unité Continentale paramilitary formation.
In 2014, Lenta spoke for the Russian media from, as stated, Donbas – eastern Ukraine.
In a video from August 2014, holding a rifle in his hands, he said that he came to Ukraine to inform the citizens of France about the “reality of that war, because the French media present Russia as an aggressor in Ukraine.”
In 2014, the French media wrote about Nikola Perovic, a member of the Unité Continentale, who, as they stated, has dual Serbian-French citizenship, and previously served in the French battalion in Afghanistan.
Perovic himself then spoke for the French Le Monde about his participation in the war in Ukraine.
Perovic is also mentioned by the British BBC in a text from 2014 as a citizen of France, of Serbian origin, as a former professional French soldier who fought in Afghanistan.
RFE failed to determine whether the verdict of the High Court in which the identity of the convict was obscured refers to Nikola Perović.
Serbian citizens under investigation in Ukraine
Members of the paramilitary formation “Unité Continentale”, including six Serbian citizens, in 2018 were included in the investigation of the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine.
A document submitted to the RFE by the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office states that they are under investigation for carrying out attacks on Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the side of pro-Russian separatists as part of the extreme right-wing organization “Unité Continentale”.
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office then announced that they were Zoran Kljajic, Stevan Milosevic, Stefan Celav, Ivan Mackic, Radomir Pocuca and Bratislav Zivkovic.
Stevan Milosevic previously confirmed his participation in this unit for RFE.
The investigation of the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office also included 10 citizens of Spain, 21 citizens of Italy, 11 citizens of France, one citizen of Moldova, one citizen of the USA, two citizens of Finland, two citizens of the Czech Republic, one citizen of Belarus and one citizen of Latvia.