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Serbia's first #MeToo trial proves a lonely path

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Brus (Serbia) (AFP)

Everyone in town told Marija Lukic not to do it.

But eventually, "I couldn't stand it any more," the 31-year-old said, of the moment she decided to break a taboo and publicly accuse the mayor of her small Serbian town of repeated sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.

A year later, the former secretary is facing down mobs of men outside court and small-town power politics in the first high-profile #MeToo trial in the Balkans.

For most of the past 20 years, Lukic's former boss Milutin Jelicic -- who denies all the accusations -- has held senior public office in their town of Brus, a quiet community nestled in Serbia's southern mountains.

"Everything and everyone here is under his pressure," Lukic said, in an interview with AFP at a cafe in Brus after the last court hearing in late May.

Jelicic, 57, resigned in March, a year after he was charged by police.

He did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

But regional 24-hour cable TV news channel N1 reported him as saying he was a victim of "torture by the media".

"You journalists should write better and not spread lies and untruths," it reported him as having said after he stepped down.

- 'Almost every time I was alone' -

According to Lukic, the alleged abuse started on day one, when she was interviewed to be the mayor's secretary in June 2015.

Jelicic took her to an empty office where he touched her legs and breasts and kissed her on the mouth even after she tried to shove him away, she told AFP.

After she continued to protest, Jelicic apologised profusely and said it would never happen again, Lukic said.

But it did -- "almost every time I was alone in the office."

The mayor also harassed her with text messages, she said, thousands of which Lukic is bringing to court as evidence.

"When will we make love, it's been two years already," read one message shown to AFP by Lukic.

- Nightmares, shaking -

Eventually, Lukic said that she reached a breaking point.

"I had nightmares, my body was shaking when he was there," she recalled, describing how she would do anything -- including bringing her two children to the office -- to avoid being alone with her boss.

In March 2018, she spoke to the police who later charged the mayor with sexual harassment, sexual assault and abusing his position of authority.

Watching the "Me Too" movement unfold across the Atlantic had been a source of inspiration.

"If they were shut up for so many years and then spoke out, I can speak out too," said Lukic, who is married and also stepped down from her job at that time.

But the reception in Serbia, where sexual harassment was only made a crime in 2017 and sexism is pervasive, has been far lonelier.

At her last court appearance, Lukic had to force her way through a crowd of locals, mainly men, outside court chanting support for the mayor and wearing T-shirts saying "Justice for Jutka" (his nickname).

Several men told AFP that they believed Lukic was fabricating the accusations because she had not received a promotion she wanted.

"It's a classic case of blackmail and revenge," one middle-aged man said, while others accused her of having dressed provocatively. They all refused to give their names.

Lukic denies their claims.

Her lawyers said they had requested the case be moved to a court outside of Brus over concerns about political influence in the former mayor's hometown.

Earlier this month, the court said in a statement that it had asked to transfer the trial to Belgrade, and was awaiting a decision.

- 'Lies and untruths' -

Several Brus locals privately expressed support for Lukic, but few were willing to do so publicly, citing fears of repercussions.

At the last hearing, a troupe of mainly female political activists bused down from Belgrade to support Lukic.

Outside court, they faced off with the mayor's supporters, carrying signs that said "Justice for Marija" and playing drums to drown out the "Jutka! Jutka!" chants.

Hours later, after the hearing, Lukic said that she feared for her life after a car nearly hit her while she was crossing the road -- a move she interpreted as an act of intimidation and reported to police.

Although the trial opened in February, four of the five hearings so far have been postponed.

"People in positions of power abuse their status and resources to influence institutions," which "is not hard to do in Serbia," said Tanja Ignjatovic, of the Autonomous Women's Center in Belgrade.

"With good lawyers, which rich people can afford, it is possible to delay cases until they are subject to a statute of limitations," she told AFP.

- 'Faith' -

Without progress in the Brus case, Ignjatovic worries that it could become a warning "to all women about what lies ahead if they dare report sexual harassment."

Forty percent of Serbian women have experienced sexual harassment at some point since the age of 15, according to a 2019 survey by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

But two in five victims "reported talking to no one" after the most serious incident, the survey found.

Lukic hopes her case will show others they are not alone.

Four other women have publicly accused the ex-mayor of harassment -- no legal cases have been brought -- and two of them are witnesses in Lukic's case.

"If I didn't have faith, I wouldn't have started this," she said.

"It's really hard actually, but I don't know why, I feel ready for that."

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