Serbia’s #MeToo moment as alleged harassment victim fights lonely battle for justice

Posted at 2:32 AM, Jun 30, 2019

The first time Marija Lukic met her former boss, he locked the office door, groped her, and forcibly kissed her on the lips, she said.

It was June 2015, and the married mother-of-two had come for a job interview with the powerful head of Brus municipality, located 240 kilometers south of the Serbian capital Belgrade, hoping that her education and work experience would get her hired.

“I felt so angry and told him I won’t sleep with him to get the job. I asked him to unlock the door so I could come out. I told him — forget about this, I don’t need this job, I don’t need anything,” Lukic told CNN.

It was the start of two years of sexual harassment she says, during which Milutin Jelicic allegedly sent her 15,000 Whatsapp, Viber and text messages, repeatedly groped her, and told her she could only advance at work if she had sex with him, Lukic alleged.

Jelicic, 57, has repeatedly denied all accusations, via Serbian media.

“The opposition is using this to unjustly soil the name of the President of Serbia and the Serbian progressive party. My justice and truth I will prove in court.”

He and his attorney have not responded to CNN’s questions.

The case has culminated in a high-profile #MeToo trial that’s rocked Serbia’s socially conservative society, where a law criminalizing sexual harassment was introduced only in 2017.

It also shed light on the disproportionate power wielded by local officials who hold the keys to what is often the only source of employment in small and poor communities like Brus — government jobs.

Serious and professional — at first

Lukic, 31, said the flood of inappropriate messages from Jelicic started immediately after she stormed out of his office. She ignored them for several months but got in touch with him when her sister and friends asked her to inquire about an internship payment they were expecting from a government fund, she told CNN.

“I was reluctant because I was worried he will start coming on to me again, but my sister and her colleagues were trying to reach him for a month and were counting on that money,” Lukic said.

Jelicic was responsive and offered her the job of his secretary — reassuring Lukic that he wanted nothing more than a smart and motivated employee. She still had no work and decided to accept, hoping that her previous conduct had set boundaries.

During their next meeting, Jelicic was serious and professional, Lukic recalled.

“Really, at that moment I believed that because I batted away his messages and attention, it would be different now, he would not pester me again.”

Her boss’s good behavior lasted three weeks, up until the moment they were in an empty office together and he again groped Lukic and tried to forcibly kiss her, she alleged.

“I felt so angry and burst into tears. I told him, we didn’t agree to that, everything was ok so far, what’s this again? He said he just couldn’t control himself, and that it would never happen again,” she said.

It did, however — whenever they were alone, Lukic alleged. Afterwards Jelicic would send her messages — seen by CNN — in which he apologized, but also continued to put pressure on her to sleep with him.

A message Lukic submitted to court, and translated here by CNN to English, read: “I am sorry I kissed you today a little bit by force and against your wishes and desires. I won’t do it any more, it’s stupid that I am doing this one-sided.”

Another message said: “I love you, I desire you, when are we going to make love, it’s been two years already.”

Jelicic denied he wrote the messages, telling the Serbian newspaper Blic last year: ” I never sent her anything. That phone was in the office being charged, and she sent the messages to herself.”

Lukic said she had agreed for the court to cross-check mobile phone records.

The thought of being left alone with Jelicic gave Lukic nightmares, she said, and she was prescribed Xanax for stress and anxiety.

“Most mornings I would be sick and throw up before going into the office, then cry for half an hour once I got there,” she said.

Her family and friends noticed something was wrong, but she didn’t tell them the truth in fear of making the situation worse.

At the same time, her boss’s demands on her increased, she said.

“He said quite explicitly – ‘if you want a better job, if you want a promotion, the only way to do it is to have sex with me, because I can’t trust you unless you love me. It won’t work any other way — that’s the way I operate with all my employees.”‘

Silent permissiveness

Lukic said she appealed to Jelicic’s friends for help, but their response was — resign or give him what he wants. “They said I wasn’t the first or the last,” she said.

This silent permissiveness toward sexual harassment is prevalent in Serbia, according to Tanja Ignjatovic of the Autonomous Women’s Center, a Belgrade NGO.

“There clearly is a high tolerance of sexualized interactions, speech, behavior, and that has been normalized as a type of commonplace communication in the workplace, seen as a joke, and not something that represents serious harassment,” she said.

Even though more than a third of Serbia’s MPs are women, as well as the country’s Prime Minister, this doesn’t translate into more equality, Ignjatijevic pointed out.

The latest report on Serbia by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a United Nations body, stated concern over “misogynistic statements that are expressed in the media and also by high-ranking politicians, religious leaders and academics with impunity.”

“It’s also much harder when sexual harassment happens in small places, like Brus, where local politicians control everything — whether you have a job, whether you will lose it, whether the institutions will do their job or will abuse the authority,” Ignjatijevic said.

Other accusers

In March 2018 Lukic could take it no longer, she told CNN, and informed her boss that she was going to report him to the police. She posted some of his messages on Facebook, and shortly after, she said she received an ominous call telling her that if she didn’t delete her post her “head would be on the line,” she added.

She said she was asked to meet a group of unknown men at a Brus restaurant, who sat next to her and watched her delete the post, asking her to write that she was only joking.

Lukic said she met the men because she was afraid of what would have happened if she didn’t, and wanted to ask them for assurances that she would be safe if she deleted her post.

Despite the alleged threats, Lukic filed a police report, and was fired the next day.

“I knew that if I were in conflict with him, all doors in Brus would be closed to me, like they are closed now, I still can’t find a job here.

“But I wanted to make sure he knew he was not the one in control of me. I wanted him to know that I can drive this to the end, and that I felt strong,” Lukic said.

Six more women came forward to accuse Jelicic of sexual harassment after Marija Lukic reported him, but the prosecution decided to press charges only in her case — for unauthorized sexual activity with the abuse of authority, and sexual harassment.

CNN contacted Jelicic through his lawyer, but did not get a response to any questions.

The politician, who resigned this March and is a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, said that the charges against him were politically motivated.

He told Serbia’s Tanjug news agency: “This case is being used as a direct attack on the President Aleksandar Vucic, and in order to destroy the party to which I belong.”

The case has garnered national attention and wall-to-wall coverage in Serbian media. At the latest hearing in May, scores of Jelicic’s supporters came out to cheer on him, wearing T-shirts which said Justice for Jutka, his nickname. In turn, the supporters of Marija Lukic held banners which read “I believe you.”

“I think the #MeToo campaign in Serbia had virtually no impact before Marija Lukic came out with this case, and all of its dramatic details,” Tanja Ignjatovic, with the Autonomous Women’s Center.

Its outcome is closely watched in Serbia, she added, and could affect whether other women decide to report abuse.

‘I will fight ’til the very end’

So far, four out of five hearings have been postponed, and the local court has asked for the case to be transferred to the capital Belgrade.

Marija Lukic’s lawyer Borivoje Borovic says there is always a danger that the process could drag on long enough to breach the statute of limitations, which in this case is six years. “But we won’t let that happen,” Borovic insisted.

Lukic says that she and her family have endured continuous threats and harassment on social media, including having her personal and medical details posted online. She doesn’t know who was behind that, but suspects the politician’s allies were the culprits.

“If I can’t get justice in this country — which I believe I can because I have so much evidence — I will go to European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on foot if I need to,” she said.

“I will fight ’til the very end — I will not give up after everything I’ve been through. If I made it this far, I will make it to the end.”