BELGRADE, Serbia – A Serb who was been charged with severely beating a college classmate in the United States fled the country because he does not trust the U.S. justice system, his lawyer said Friday.
The case of Miladin Kovacevic, 20, who played basketball at Binghamton University in upstate New York, could set off a diplomatic row between the U.S. and Serbia, as American congressman demand that he be extradited to America to face trial.
"My client told me that he did not flee to hide from justice, but because he doesn't believe in the American justice system," Kovacevic's family lawyer, Veselin Cerovic, told reporters.
The 20-year-old, 6-foot-9-inch Serb fled the United States after being arrested on charges connected to a May 4 fight in Binghamton city that left fellow student Bryan Steinhauer in critical condition. Steinhauer, 22, has not regained consciousness since the fight.
Cerovic quoted Kovacevic as saying that while he was detained in New York, he was subjected to "torture and disdain" because he is a Serb. Cerovic said that some prison guards and inmates called him "you damned Serb."
"Kovacevic is not hiding. He believes in the laws of his country, and that's why he returned to Serbia," Cerovic said. "His purely legal case is being turned into a political case."
The lawyer pointed out that Serbia's laws do not allow the extradition of its citizens to the United States.
"This case is perfectly clear. There is no extradition of a Serbian citizen to a foreign country," Cerovic said. "In case of evidence, he will be tried according to the Serbian laws."
Kovacevic — who had been recruited to play basketball for Binghamton University — left the United States on July 9, three days after being released from U.S. custody when his family posted $100,000 bail.
As a condition of his release, Kovacevic surrendered his passport, but the Serbian Consulate in New York has been accused of furnishing him with emergency travel documents that helped him flee the country.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government asked the Serbian Foreign Ministry to send Kovacevic back to America for trial, but Serbia wants to see the whole case against him so it can consider whether he should be tried in a Serb court instead.
U.S. police have said the basketball player was at the bar with friends when Steinhauer danced with one of their girlfriends, sparking an angry dispute. A fight followed, and Kovacevic is accused of repeatedly kicking Steinhauer in the head.
New York congressmen have asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Serbia to help locate the Serb and return him to the United States.
Legal experts have said loopholes could be found that would allow for Kovacevic's return, given that he fled the U.S. illegally to avoid prosecution.