Serb fugitive doesn't trust US justice

July 4, 2008 12:30:09 PM PDT
The lawyer of a Serb charged with beating a New York college classmate to near death said Friday he fled to his homeland because he doesn't believe in the U.S. justice system.The case of basketball player Miladin Kovacevic is threatening to ignite a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

"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 Serb basketball player fled the United States after being arrested on charges connected to a May 4 bar fight in Binghamton, N.Y., that left Bryan Steinhauer in critical condition.

Steinhauer, 22, has not regained consciousness since the fight.

Cerovic said that his client told him that while in detention, he was subjected to "torture and disdain" only because he is a Serb. Cerovic said that some of the prison guards and inmates called the player "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."

He pointed out that Serbia's law does not allow 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 furnished him with emergency travel documents that helped him flee the country.

The U.S. on Tuesday asked the Serbian Foreign Ministry to send Kovacevic back to the U.S. for trial, but Serbia wants to see the whole case against the basketball player so it can consider whether he should instead be tried in a Serb court.

U.S. police said the 6-foot-9-inch basketball player was at the bar with friends when Steinhauer danced with one of their girlfriends, sparking an angry exchange of words. A fight followed, and Kovacevic is accused of repeatedly kicking Steinhauer in the head, police said.

New York congressmen have asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Serbia to help locate the 20-year-old basketball player and return him to the United States.

Legal experts said loopholes could be found that would allow for the basketball player's return, given that he fled the U.S.

illegally to avoid prosecution.