Saturday, April 06, 2013

Serbia: Landmark Ruling Gives Hope To Parents Of Serbia's 'Stolen' Babies

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Landmark Ruling Gives Hope To Parents Of Serbia's 'Stolen' Babies 

By Zoran Glavonjic and Claire Bigg
Goran Filipovic says his daughter is turning 15 this year. He still hopes to meet her one day.

Doctors at the Belgrade hospital where she was born told Filipovic and his wife that she had died shortly after birth.

The couple, however, believes their daughter is still alive and was in fact stolen for adoption as part of a vast criminal scheme that included doctors and nurses at state-run Serbian clinics.

The family's tragic tale is not uncommon in Serbia, where hundreds of parents have made similar claims over the years.

The European Court of Human Rights last week awarded 10,000 euros ($13,000) in moral damages to the mother of a boy who disappeared at a Serbian maternity ward 30 years ago -- a landmark ruling that Filipovic hopes will help bring closure to all the families still searching for their children.

"My phone is constantly ringing. I now receive numerous phone calls from parents who felt discouraged by the state's inaction before the ruling was passed. They all want us to unite and force the authorities to deal with our cases and finally solve them," Filipovic says.

"I believe we will now wage one common fight for the truth, which will be revealed sooner or later."

Belgrade Ordered To Investigate

The successful plaintiff, Zorica Jovanovic, gave birth to a healthy baby boy in October 1983. But as she and her son were about to be released from the hospital three days later, she was informed that he had died of unspecified causes.

The infant's body was never handed over. Jovanovic was not given any autopsy report or even told where he had been buried.

Both in 2002 and 2007, local officials confirmed that her son's death had not been registered in municipal records, strengthening her suspicions that he was smuggled out of the hospital alive.

The European Court ruled that the Serbian authorities had violated Jovanovic's right to respect for her family life by consistently failing to provide her with "credible information as to what happened to her son." She was awarded an additional 1,800 euros ($2,300) in lawyers' fees and expenses.

Judges in Strasbourg noted the "significant number of other potential applicants" and voiced hope that their decision would "help hundreds of parents to find out what happened to their newborn babies."

They also ordered Serbian authorities to investigate each individual case and provide wronged families with adequate compensation within a year. About 100 similar complaints from Serbian parents are currently pending before the court.

Trail Of Falsified Documents

The disappearances seemed to follow the same pattern. Filipovic says he, too, was barred from seeing his allegedly deceased daughter. "When I went to the hospital, I was told our baby had died 15 minutes ago. When I asked to see her, they refused; I was not even able to lay her to rest," he says. "I went back home deeply shaken and I buried the whole thing deep inside me."

Despite the absence of a death certificate, Filipovic says he was too blinded by grief and by his faith in doctors to immediately suspect foul play. With time, however, doubts began to creep in.

"When I somewhat recovered from the shock, I wanted to visit my daughter's grave. But when I went to the cemetery I was told that the hospital had not sent the remains of a child under that name, that they had never received any document and that they did not have any record of her burial," Filipovic says.

"Then I went to the hospital to find out what happened and I found duplicate records, duplicate certificates with blank spaces where details on the mother should have been indicated. I realized that birth records were being faked."

Filipovic says his visit to the registry office revealed further inconsistencies, suggesting that documents had been forged.

Forcing The Government To Act

Instances of newborns disappearing in Serbian hospitals have been reported since the 1970s, but little has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice and end a horrifying practice that appears to have persisted until the late 1990s.

The purported discovery of several "missing" children, alive and growing up in adoptive families, deepened the conviction felt by many parents that their babies were snatched away after being declared dead.

Although such cases drew media attention at the time, and despite strong pressure from parents, the Serbian authorities have largely turned a blind eye to the allegations. More than 700 people have filed complaints over their babies' suspicious deaths in delivery clinics, but investigators have not solved a single case.

In the early 2000s, dozens of families joined forced to lobby for a thorough probe. Their efforts resulted in the creation of a parliamentary committee tasked with looking into the possible trafficking of newborn babies.

The committee, which was disbanded in 2006, concluded that the parents' suspicions were well-founded and urged the Interior Ministry to set up a special investigative unit including experts on human trafficking.

"We believed that we had enough cases to make such a recommendation. We believed that the investigations were justifiable and that they should be handled by the police, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the judiciary, as well as all other competent state institutions," says Zivodarka Dacin, the committee's chairwoman.

The unit, however, never materialized.

For Jovanovic, Filipovic, and scores of other parents still searching for answers about their children's fate, the European Court's ruling is therefore a major victory.

Filipovic is painfully aware that no judgment can guarantee that he will find his child, let alone make up for the lost years together. But after decades of inaction from the authorities at home, he says the Strasbourg court is his only chance of ever being reunited with his daughter.