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“When a Burglar Enters Your Home”: Debating Serbia's Self-Defense Law

This is the case that has united Serbia: Saško Bogeski [sr], who killed burglar Vlada Manić in his home in Belgrade on Tuesday, was arrested immediately and ordered by a judge yesterday to be held in jail on remand for 30 days. According to the authorities, Bogeski had allegedly crossed the line of what is known as “necessary defense” [sr] in the Serbian law.

Serbian netizens are demanding urgent amendments to the Penal Code of the Republic of Serbia [sr], which defines “necessary defense” in such a way that makes it extremely difficult to prove, while interpretations frequently play against the attacked individuals.

Twitter user @zmiroljub resonated [sr] the opinion of most netizens following this case:

Ovog coveka treba javnost da podrzi. Da je provalnik pobio njegovu porodicu, to bi bila samo vest na naslovnoj Blica…

This man needs public support. If the burglar had murdered his family, it would have just been a news item on the front page of Blic [a Serbian daily]…

Many netizens, such as Twitter user Biljana Lukic, sound overwhelmingly disgruntled and sarcastic [sr]:

Kad vam upadne provalnik u kuću, budite ljubazni, pokažite mu gde držite vrednosti i nadajte se da ćete preživeti. Ako se branite, robijaćete.

When a burglar enters your home, be polite, show him where you keep your valuables and hope that you will survive. If you defend yourself, you will serve prison time.

User @web_neki_tamo writes [sr]:

Ako mi upadne provalnik prvo ću da ga pitam šta ima od oružja, da ne bih slučajno uzeo nešto što je jače od njegovog.

If a burglar drops in, I'll ask him which weapons he has first, so I don't accidentally grab something more powerful than what he has.

Similar laws are in place in most countries of the former Yugoslavia, while most other European countries often interpret “necessary defense” in a wider sense and such cases often proceed without trial and are not viewed as criminal acts.

An online petition in support of Bogeski [sr] has been launched, and over 8,100 people have already signed it. In the petition, Bogeski is described as a well-known philanthropist and a committed activist for the rights of marginalized groups. He is the president of an NGO that stands for the promotion of ethical values in private and public lives of individuals. During the war in Bosnia, he worked in a Bible school and helped displaced individuals and those with special needs. He was also part of the team that brought Nick Vujicic, a Serbian-Australian motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs, to Belgrade. He has had no prior misdemeanors or criminal charges. The killed burglar, on the other hand, was a multiple offender with over 50 prior criminal charges for offenses that included robbery and armed robbery.

In the Serbian society, there is an ongoing debate related to whether or not there was justified cause for “necessary defense” in cases similar to Bogeski's. In the Blic daily, attorney Nebojša Perović explains [sr]:

U ovakvim slučajevima sud se dosta oslanja na nalaz veštaka. Pitanje je u kom stepenu je smanjena moć rasuđivanja i u kom stepenu je prisutan efekat straha i besa. Vrlo je teško proceniti koliko napadnuti može da kontroliše svoj postupak i u kom trenutku on brani sebe i porodicu.

In cases such as these, the court relies heavily on the assessment of court experts. The question is to what extent the power of judgement was diminished and to what extent the effects of fear and rage were present. It is very difficult to assess how much the attacked individual was able to control his acts and at which point he was defending himself and his family.

The signing of the online petition and the activism present on social networks certainly won't solve the issue, but they nevertheless show that citizens are taking a stand when faced with this problem.

Arguments of self-defense are very difficult to uphold in court cases in Serbia, and cases in which the court has acquitted those accused of manslaughter are extremely rare, even when self-defense was obvious to an average person. The best-known example in the former Yugoslavia is that of the famous actor Žarko Laušević, who was tried for the 1993 double murder that he committed while defending his own life, the life of his brother and others present at the scene. Laušević was pardoned after serving some 5 years in prison, the larger part of a longer sentence given by the court.

Many citizens are now appealing [sr] to the Minister of Justice, Nikola Selaković, directly on Twitter with the request that the state protect citizens with amendments to the existing laws:

Poštovani @selakovicnikola može li se ikako inicirati promena u Zakonu koja bi zaštitila privatni posed? [...]

Respected @selakovicnikola is there any way of initiating amendments to the law that would protect private property? [...]

At the time of writing this post, Minister Selaković has not yet responded to users on Twitter.

The investigation of Bogeski's case is still in progress.

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