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Harsh detention leaves mark on Serbian president's critic


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The leader of Serbia's parliamentary opposition, Vuk Draskovic, seems a changed man after a 38-day imprisonment and mistreatment by the police of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Gone is his inexhaustible flow of pungent, anti-Communist rhetoric and charges that Mr. Milosevic and his Socialist Party allies are thugs and warmongers. For the moment at least, Mr. Draskovic is in an introspective mood. He chooses his words carefully. He speaks with the detachment of a novelist, which is his original occupation, rather than the zeal of a politician.

A Rasputin-like figure with a flowing black beard and piercing eyes, Mr. Draskovic, 47, insists that he does not want to talk about the "hellish" experiences that he and his wife, Dana, suffered at the hands of Mr. Milosevic's police.

But the tortures and degradation he endured are constantly on his mind. Both suffered serious injuries while in police custody, according to a medical report.

He says he cannot remember anti-regime demonstrations on the evening of June 1, nor a savage beating by officers the next morning as he ran a gantlet from his Serbian Renewal Movement's party headquarters to a police van when the government came to arrest him.

What he remembers distinctly, he says, is a moment at the police station "where they kept pulling me by my hair so that my body would accelerate and my head would hit the wall with greater force." He thought that was the end. When they revived him with buckets of water and slaps on his face, they asked him, "Leader, was this hard enough?"

"I said 'no,' and then they repeated the whole thing. When I recovered consciousness, the question was popped: 'Was this hard enough?' I remember that I told them with some impudence, 'You're not strong enough to do it properly so that I'd feel pain.' I don't remember anything after that."

The treatment was Mr. Milosevic's vengeance against the man who had become a thorn in his side and who was the only person capable of galvanizing the masses into protests against the regime. It was also seen as an object lesson to any one who contemplates open resistance to his rule.

Theirs was an uneven duel. Mr. Milosevic had Mr. Draskovic and many of his aides arrested on charges of fomenting armed insurrection. Mr. Milosevic had the police, courts and propaganda on his side. Mr. Draskovic had a fractured and largely disoriented opposition on his.

Mr. Milosevic ignored opposition protests and interventions by international leaders including French President Francois Mitterrand, British Prime Minister John Major and President Clinton. It was ultimately Mr. Draskovic's hunger strike and his personal appeal to Mrs. Milosevic to help save Dana Draskovic that persuaded the Serbian president to issue a personal pardon.

The pardon was a dramatic gesture that came on the 10th day of Mr. Draskovic's hunger strike.

He had decided to die, he says. He had stopped drinking water. He even figured the date of his death. It was to be July 17, the date when Russian Czar Nicholas II was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and when Gen. Draza Mihajlovic, the Serbian royalist leader and Mr. Draskovic's hero, was executed by Yugoslavian Communists in 1946.

A high sense of drama was provided by Patriarch Pavle, who three times called on him in prison to urge him to abandon the hunger strike. This was, the patriarch said, "an anti-Christian act."

But Mr. Draskovic, who says he is a devout Christian, told the religious leader he was not committing a suicide "since the rope was not in my hands." The patriarch would not accept this.

The opposition scheduled a major protest meeting. At the same time, 42 people, including 20 members of Parliament, began a hunger strike in Belgrade's main square.

When he heard of this, Mr. Draskovic says that he was seized by a "panic fear" that the rally could turn into a bloody confrontation. "I asked Bishop Artemie to come to me early in the morning [on July 9] to administer the last sacraments to me."

He wrote an emotional testament pointing an accusing finger at Mr. Milosevic. It was smuggled to his lawyers and read at public meetings.

The whole affair suddenly appeared to threaten Mr. Milosevic's position. Mr. Draskovic's death in prison could have sparked a grim chain of events leading to a popular revolt.

Mr. Draskovic, in jail, suddenly seemed to regain the popular standing that made him a cult figure two years ago; his failure to define a clear political program had subsequently pushed him to the periphery of Belgrade's politics.

Foreign pressures also were increasing. Mr. Mitterrand's wife, Danielle, came to Belgrade to plead the case with Mr. Milosevic.

On July 9, after the court denied all legal appeals, Mr. Milosevic issued a presidential pardon.

In the comfortable surroundings of their Belgrade home, the Draskovics are planning their future. Mrs. Draskovic speaks with contempt about the pardon as "mercy with hatred." They would have preferred, they say, to defend themselves in court. "Don't forget, we are both lawyers" by education, they say.

"I'm now in the hands of doctors," says Mr. Draskovic. "They have indicated that I'd be subjected to a form of medical jail, that I have to undergo several months of isolation, avoid public appearances, emotional and intellectual strain."

Mr. Draskovic says he wants to write a novel about his hero, General Mihajlovic, leader of the Serbian royalist forces in World War II. His own ordeal will allow him to capture the general's feelings and thoughts on the night before his execution."

That does not mean, he protests, that he is returning to literature and abandoning politics. He only wants to begin his new novel on the basis of notes he had made in prison.

The novel will be concluded "when we get a new Serbia. Until then I will fight as much as I can and the way I know. From all that has transpired [during his imprisonment] I have drawn many lessons, and I have realized my own mistakes."

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