Femicide in Serbia: Crime and Lesser Punishments

Over the past ten years, more than 300 femicides have occurred in Serbia. Many of those who kill women also commit suicide. The remaining families of the murdered persons look for justice in court, but CINS’s investigation reveals that they often do not find it there.

Published On: May 23rd, 2023

© Bum Realnost/Shutterstock

It was Friday, towards the end of 2020. Somewhere around midnight, a woman doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic in Kragujevac was called to check on a patient who drank hydrochloric acid in an attempt to kill himself. When she asked him why he did it, he said that he woke up, saw that his wife had passed away and that he could not bear it.

However, that was a lie.

His common-law wife had previously reported him for domestic violence and left him. The court therefore issued him with a restraining order. However, this did not stop him. He beat her with his hands and feet until he killed her.

During the investigation, he defended himself by remaining silent, and said in court that he did not feel guilty because “he dedicated himself to her, as well as to his family”. He claimed that he did not know how to lie, and he sent a letter from prison to his nephew in which he tried to convince him to testify in his favor in court.

For this femicide case, a murder motivated by hatred of a woman, he could have been handed a life sentence. He wasn’t, because the prosecution didn’t qualify what he did as aggravated murder, but as a “regular” murder where lesser punishments are given.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

This is just one of the 117 cases of femicide analyzed by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), and that went to court between 2014 and the end of 2022. More than half of them were not characterized as aggravated murder, enabling those who commit femicide to get away with lesser punishments. In some of the cases, judges cited bizarre mitigating circumstances and imposed lesser sentences, while shifting part of the responsibility onto the murdered women.

Kosana Beker from FemPlatz, one of the associations that has been fighting for years to make femicide an aggravated murder offense, says that more severe punishments would have a preventive effect on potential abusers.

“This system sends a message to women that their lives are not valuable. On the other hand, it sends a message to abusers that they can probably get away with a lighter sentence if they have a good lawyer.”

Aggravated murder

Because femicide does not exist as a criminal offense in our country, the courts do not have statistics regarding these cases. They are treated as aggravated murder, where sentences range from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment, while the sentences for murder or domestic violence resulting in death are lower – the maximum is 15 years in prison. CINS journalists requested to see the final verdicts for such cases from all higher courts in Serbia, for the period between 2014 and the end of last year.

What counts as aggravated murder?

In order for an act to qualify as aggravated murder, according to the law, it must meet one of the following conditions:

(1) Imprisonment for at least ten years or life imprisonment shall be the punishment for the person:

1) who takes the life of another in a cruel or insidious manner;

2) who takes the life of another through reckless violent behavior;

3) who takes the life of another and at the same time intentionally endangers the life of a third person;

4) who takes the life of another while committing the crime of robbery or aggravated burglary;

5) who takes the life of another out of self-interest, in order to commit or cover up another criminal act, out of wanton revenge, or out of other base motives;

6) who takes the life of an official or military person while they are performing official duty;

7) who takes the life of a judge, public prosecutor, deputy public prosecutor or police officer in connection with their performance of official duties;

8) who takes the life of a person performing tasks of public importance in connection with the tasks performed by that person;

9) who takes the life of a child or a pregnant woman;

10) who takes the life of a member of their family whom they previously abused;

11) who deliberately takes the lives of several people, and it is not a case of voluntary manslaughter, killing a child during childbirth or taking a life out of compassion.

(2) Whoever acquires or equips the means for the execution of the criminal offense referred to in Paragraph 1 of this Article or removes obstacles to its execution or agrees, plans or organizes with others its execution or undertakes another action that creates the conditions for its immediate execution, shall be punished with imprisonment from one to five years.

The verdicts we had insight into include the case of a man in a village near Bosilegrad who, after an argument, killed his mother with a kitchen knife. He told the resident who happened to be there not to call the police, but to “get someone to get a casket fitted”.

In court, he blamed his mother for the fact that his wife and children left the house, and said that he got so upset that “his eyes went dark”.

Although the judge stated that it was a brutal murder, the man was not tried for aggravated murder, but “regular” murder.

He was sentenced to 14 years, and after an appeal, his sentence was reduced to 10 years in prison.

Less than half of the cases analyzed by CINS were characterized as aggravated murder.

Sometimes, such cases are also treated as domestic violence resulting in death. Gorjana Mirčić Čaluković, deputy prosecutor and coordinator for gender-based violence at the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, explains that from a legal point of view, the perpetrator had no intention of killing her.

One such case happened near Šabac.

The violence that precedes the murder

Some of the abusers do not even make it to court, but commit suicide after the murder. Serbia does not have official statistics when it comes to femicide, so the only publicly available data are those collected by organizations that deal with this topic, such as the Autonomous Women’s Center (AŽC). Vanja Macanović from this organization believes that it is important for the state to collect this data and to know the extent of occurrences of femicide.

Domestic violence is mentioned in one third of the verdicts for femicide analyzed by CINS. Some perpetrators had been previously convicted, in some cases they had just been reported, and in some cases other people testified about the violence – after the murder.

Macanović also says that according to their data, some of the murdered women had previously reported violence, but did not receive protection in time.

“Did these cases send a message to women ‘you can file as many report as you want, but your lives will not be saved’? Because it’s clear that this involved serious negligence on behalf of the institutions.”

Witnesses had previously seen the man hitting his partner, and that at one point he told her: “Get up, don’t you die on me now, I’ll go to prison because of you.” She then got up, but he continued to hit her. He left her lying on a country road, where they found her the next day, after she had passed away. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Mirčić Čaluković has told CINS that femicide does not necessarily need to exist as a separate crime. She adds, however, that it should then be mandatory for prosecutors to prove that an aggravated murder occurred as a result of domestic violence, one motivated by hatred of a gender, in this case a woman. However, according to her, most prosecutors do not deal with this matter.

“They need to show that the violence continued to escalate until it exploded into murder. It is the continuity that needs to be proven.”

Kosana Beker believes the underlying reason is a misunderstanding by part of the judicial authorities.

“They think they have to prove something out of this world. It is enough that it is gender-based, there is no need to get into the motive of hatred towards women.”

Crime and Punishments

Due to the fact that murderers of women are more often tried on the basis of criminal offenses with lesser punishments, nearly 70% of the verdicts analyzed by CINS resulted in sentences of up to 15 years in prison or psychiatric treatment.

The problem is also that courts often take bizarre mitigating circumstances into account when handing out sentences. Kosana Beker sees this as an issue caused by a common practice of the courts.

“If someone, for example, commits serious theft, it is common for his family and children to be taken as a mitigating circumstance when deciding on the punishment. So when a femicide occurs, they just copy the same thing, apply it there as well, because they’ve done it hundreds of times before.”

There was the example in Golubac where a young man was supposed to look after an elderly woman, in return for inheriting all her property after her death. When he felt this wasn’t actually going to happen, he wanted to go home, but she tried to keep him there. The young man said in court that this “annoyed” him, so he started strangling her and killed her. He left her body by the side of the road.

One of the mitigating circumstances stated in the verdict is that “the deceased contributed with her behavior to the occurrence of the critical event”. The young man was sentenced to six years in prison.

In another case, an elderly man near Opovo was quarrelling with his partner and then attacked her. He killed her with a knife, and then attempted suicide. Mitigating circumstances, according to the court, were the fact that he has high blood pressure, as well as the fact that he was held in high regard in the neighborhood in which he lives. The verdict reveals that he was once the president of the local community and the local football club. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

In Kruševac, when a husband killed his wife by beating her to death with a rod, after harassment and death threats, the mitigating circumstance was that “he is a family man, the father of two adult children with whom he lives in the same household”.

Mitigating circumstances in some of the cases were also poverty, other diseases such as diabetes, as well as pleading guilty to the criminal offense.

Vanja Macanović from the Autonomous Women’s Center (AŽC), which has been collecting data related to femicide for years, believes that the courts misjudge mitigating circumstances, which are actually classic excuses of abusers.

“They kept getting away with it, it’s a form of shifting the responsibility onto the victim. ‘Well, if she hadn’t done that…’ Whatever she did, no one has the right to kill her or seriously injure her.”

However, a case from Čačak demonstrates that things can go differently.

When the local High Court was deciding on the sentence for a man from the Ivanjica area who had previously abused his wife and eventually killed her with a knife, the judge’s stance was different. The ruling states that being the father of three daughters will not be considered a mitigating circumstance since he killed their mother, which “precludes a sense of attachment to family”.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Original source: https://www.cins.rs/en/femicide-in-serbia-crime-and-lesser-punishments/

Stay up to date with our newsletter!