Torture trial expected to continue without defendant

Torture trial expected to continue without defendant

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By MITCH STACY

Associated Press

ATLANTA - The defendant's chair will be empty at the Monday opening of a civil rights trial here accusing a former Bosnian-Serb soldier of torture and other atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

The defendant, Serbian-born Nikola Vuckovic, is accused of detaining and torturing Bosnian Muslims and Croats after the Bosnian-Serb takeover in 1992.

But Vuckovic won't be in court. According to his former attorney, Vuckovic, who in recent years had lived in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, went back to Bosnia months ago to care for his sick mother, who has since died. His family said they don't know when he'll return.

Vuckovic was sued in 1998 by one of his alleged victims, Kemal Mehinovic. Once co-owner of a family bakery, restaurant and cafe in a small city in Bosnia, Mehinovic, 43, lost it all in the takeover.

According to documents he filed in federal court, he was arrested with other Muslims, sent to a concentration camp, separated from his family for more than two years, abused and starved.

Mehinovic's lawsuit claims that between May and November 1992, Vuckovic beat him with metal pipes, baseball bats, chair legs, wooden batons, his fists, and heavy boots.

Mehinovic left the country in 1995 and settled in Salt Lake City. When he found out that Vuckovic had also moved to the United States, he sued him under a 200-year-old law allowing people claiming to be victims of torture to seek redress in American courts. The lawsuit was later joined by three more plaintiffs.

Filed by the lawyers working with the Center for Justice and Accountability, the legal arm of Amnesty International, the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount for torture, genocide, assault and false arrest.

In court documents, Vuckovic acknowledges he was a soldier but denies allegations of wrongdoing.

After Vuckovic left the United States, his family fired his attorney, Larry Pankey, so the case against the former soldier will open with no defense.

U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob agreed to release Pankey from the case but decided the jury trial would go on as scheduled.

"When a case is set for trial, it's set for trial," said Mehinovic's lead attorney, Paul Hoffman.

The lawsuit is among the latest in a small but growing body of cases giving new life to the Alien Tort Claims Act, enacted by the first Congress in 1789. The law allows foreign residents to sue in U.S. courts those who break "the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

The plaintiff need not live in this country, though most do. And the defendant need only set foot on American soil long enough to be served a complaint. In some cases, the victim is dead and the lawsuit is filed by relatives.

While juries and courts have awarded plaintiffs millions of dollars, little has been collected.

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