Rough Justice for Balkan Rape Victims

Jelena Kulidžan Podgorica, Belgrade, Brussels, Bristol and London

Convicted rapists in Montenegro and Serbia routinely receive minimal jail terms of around three years, while their victims face years of trauma and distress. Yet in other European countries like the UK, the average sentence is eight years.

Around 45 per cent of rape victims in the UK have had a sexual relationship with their attacker, according to the British Crime Survey of 1998 and 2000 (Photo: Jelena Kulidžan)

Ljumobir Kotlica is a convicted rapist from the Montenegrin city Nikšić. He will soon be a free man as his two-year prison sentence is about to come to an end.

Kotlica raped his friend’s girlfriend after driving her home because she missed her bus on December 12, 2002, the higher court in Podgorica heard. Instead of taking her home, Kotlica drove the girl to a nearby quarry and forced her to have sexual intercourse.

Not only did it take seven years for the case to be finally concluded, his sentence is just above the minimum that should be handed down to convicted rapists under Montenegrin law.

No one can remember the last time a Montenegrin court sentenced a rapist to the maximum jail term of 15 years. Certainly in the last five years, not a single judge has imposed the toughest penalty possible but they have, on three separate occasions, handed down sentences of six months.

Rapists in Montenegro are jailed, on average, for just two years and eight months, BIRN has learned.

With little public debate over rape sentencing and few victims willing to come forward and complain about the punishments their attackers receive, the penalties imposed on rapists are rarely subject to scrutiny.

Thus, the crime of rape appears to have been effectively reduced to the level of robbery. In many cases, lawyers say, thieves spend more time in jail than rapists. 

This is in stark contrast to countries like Serbia, where there has been a public outcry about lenient sentencing and the UK, where convicted rapists are jailed for an average of eight years.

Sentences ‘Ridiculous’

Activists and academics in Montenegro say the sentences rapists receive are way too low, something that puts them at odds with many in the judiciary who insist the policy is appropriate. 

“Montenegrin rape sentencing policy, as I see it, is inadequate and inconsistent. First of all, it does not achieve its main goal – prevention. It does not deter potential rapists from committing sexual offences,” says Velimir Rakočević, professor of criminology within the law faculty of Montenegro University.

Montenegrin Rape Sentencing Policy

  • Minimum sentence is one year, maximum is 15
  • Montenegrin courts have never handed down the maximum sentence
  • The average sentence for convicted rapists is two years and eight months
  • On three separate occasions during the last four years, convicted rapists have been jailed for just six months
  • Only five women reported being raped in 2010, amid fears victims do not come forward because they do not trust the system
  • NGOs are calling for more public awareness campaigns to educate the public about rape

He says soft penalties trivialise the offence and do nothing to heighten public awareness of the crime or improve society’s moral values.

“It [low sentences] also does nothing to stop convicted rapists from reoffending. I find the sentencing policy completely unacceptable and too lenient for this kind of offence,” he adds.

Women’s rights activists agree.

“The sentences handed down that I have seen were so ridiculous that I was astonished. What is two years and eight months? It is nothing compared to the destroyed life of the victim,” says Ljiljana Raičević, director of the Safe Women’s House, a refuge for victims of domestic violence in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica.

There are no centralised statistics available for rape sentencing. In order to establish the average sentence, one must first trawl through the archives at the Podgorica and Bijelo Polje higher courts.

Most prosecutors and judges, however, see nothing wrong with Montenegro’s sentencing policy.

“In spite of the low percentage of sentences that reach the average level of what is prescribed by law, we believe that penal policy for this crime is satisfactory and adequate,” says Veljko Rutović, a prosecutor from the state prosecution office.

He says at least judges are not handing down community sentences for rapists, something that was common in the past.

Dragica Vuković, a judge sitting on the Podgorica higher court, says she believes the sentences she and her colleagues are handing down are not unduly lenient. She stresses each judge sentences strictly according to what is permissible within Montenegro’s criminal code.

“Each case is different. We assess the mitigating circumstances such as the financial standing [social situation] of the perpetrator, his family background, his age and attitude towards the victim after the act,” she says.

Montenegro does not have specially-trained judges, prosecutors and police officers working on rape cases, which is often cited as another reason for lenient sentences.

“It must not be just law experts who deal with rape cases, we need a multi-disciplinary approach. People from our legal system need a broader education, so they know how to treat rape victims and save [them] from undergoing secondary victimisation [in court],” says Rakočević.

Women ‘Second Rate Citizens’

Some believe Montenegro’s rape sentencing policy can be partly explained by the fact the country remains a highly patriarchal society.

“In exceptionally patriarchal societies, such as Montenegro, the woman is always a second-rate citizen. The men dominate as alpha males and society is willing to tolerate their violent behaviour,” says Goran Velimirović, a lawyer and former judge.

Montenegro needs more judges, prosecutors and police officers who are trained to deal with sexual violence, says criminologist Velimir Rakočević (Photo: Jelena Kulidžan)

Lenient sentences are not the only issue, Montenegrin rape victims have to prove they were violently forced to have intercourse against their will, with the expectation that they bear physically scars and injuries, demonstrating they put up a fight.

The question of consent itself is almost secondary.

“The legal system is asking for something it absolutely should not be – that the victim resists until the end of the rape… It is unacceptable. We should consider lack of consent,” says Rakočević.

Not so long ago, it was widely believed that simply wearing a short skirt or drinking alcohol was effectively asking for sex. Police routinely cited these as sufficient grounds to doubt the veracity of a victim’s complaint and refuse to open a case.

Women’s rights activists say things have improved since then, but women still have little faith that the system will treat them fairly or humanely.

“We began working [with abused women] 16 years ago and, since then, the various institutions’ attitudes toward victims of sexual and domestic violence have changed for the better. However, in some parts of the system we still have people who have strong prejudices about rape victims,” says Aida Petrović from the non-governmental organisation Montenegrin Women’s Lobby.

Rapes Go Unreported

Just five women in the whole country reported being raped to the police in 2010. The number of reported attacks varies from year to year but never exceeds 20.

Campaigners, including Petrović, believe the true number of rape and sexual assaults is much higher but that women, because they have no faith in the system, simply don’t report being raped.

In addition, many victims of domestic violence who have been raped by their husbands are unaware they have been the victim of a crime at all.

“Many women who live in violent marriages are raped almost every day, but they do not recognise this as violence, even if they were forced to. In our experience, we still do not see women complaining of being raped by husbands. It is a taboo subject, regardless of the fact that rape within marriage is defined as a crime in Montenegro,” says Raičević from the Safe Women’s House.

There is not a single, specialist centre for rape survivors in Montenegro. The only places they can turn to are the handful of shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Public awareness remains low and there has been no public outcry about rape policy and sentencing to date. This is partly because victims are rarely willing to talk to anyone about their ordeal.

Outcry in Serbia

By contrast, rape sentencing has been the subject of much controversy and public debate in neighbouring Serbia, but the sentences themselves remain on a par with Montenegro.

Sixty per cent of custodial sentences handed down in 2009 to convicted rapists were from just three months to three years, according to data from Serbia’s Statistical Office.

Serbia’s penal code was amended in 2009, setting down tougher penalties for rapists. 

The statistical office has not yet published figures for 2010, but many Serbians are concerned rapists are still getting away with soft sentences. 

European Rape Sentencing

    Minimum/maximum sentences    Average sentences Source
MONTENEGRO 1 – 15 years 2 years 8 months Podgorica and Bijelo Polje higher courts
SERBIA 2 - 15 years 60 per cent over rapists received between 3 months and 3 years in 2009 The Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia
UK 5 years - life 8 years UK Ministry of Justice
SWEDEN 2 – 10 years 2 years 4 months Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention
FRANCE Maximum: life sentence 8 years 4 months French Ministry of Justice

Following a high-profile rape case involving a serial offender who raped five young women before being finally caught, a Facebook campaign was launched in 2009 demanding longer jail terms for rapists amid fears they would receive lighter sentences.

A leading Serbian criminologist has also expressed alarm over rape sentencing.

“It is unbelievable that our courts are unaware of the fact that raping is a symptom of a severe psychological defect and that the passing of lenient sentences increases the probability that rape shall happen again,” says retired criminal psychology professor Dobrivoje Radovanović.

The explanations commonly given here for the lenient sentencing of rapists are similar to those proffered in Montenegro. Experts cite Serbia’s patriarchal society, legal loopholes and social stigma.

Professor Radovanović, however, adds another factor to the familiar list: “The existence of mitigating circumstances provides a good opportunity for corruption. An experienced defence lawyer will insist on mitigating circumstances and manage to bribe the judge to hand down the minimum punishment.”

Dragan Milošević, a judge at the Higher Court in Belgrade, strongly denies mitigating circumstances can be abused by defendants seeking to reduce their sentences or that they are subject to bribery.

Meanwhile, attitudes that are considered outdated and prejudicial in other European jurisdictions appear to persist.

“If both the victim and the perpetrator were drunk, it will be taken as a mitigating factor. It is one thing if a girl was hitch-hiking and somebody picked her up, took her to a forest and raped her. It is something else if a man and a woman are sitting in a bar, having drinks, and at one point the man crosses the boundary of what is socially acceptable,” says Judge Milošević.

Rapists ‘Always Reoffend’

“Passing lenient sentences increases the probability that rapes shall happen again,” says Serbian Professor Dobrivoje Radovanović (Photo: Jelena Kulidžan)

Professor Radovanović advocates harsh sentences for offenders, saying there is no such thing as a one-time rapist.

“The figures are clear – the higher the punishment the lower the probability of repeat offending, because the rapist will be behind bars,” he explains.

Those who share Radovanović’s views point to the case of the 30-year-old serial rapist Saša Mega. He committed his first rape at the age of 17 and, after raping several more women, was imprisoned twice, once for five-and-a-half years and also for five years.

Released on October 1, 2009, he raped again just 20 days later. By the time he was arrested on December 25, he had raped another two young women.

Mega was sentenced in 2010 to 20 years in prison for raping the three girls. However, due to a procedural mistake in the original trial, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision. Mega remains in custody awaiting a retrial.

Nebojša Milosavljević is a well-known lawyer who has represented rapists and victims in many, highly controversial rape cases.  Unlike Radovanović, he believes rapists could benefit from rehabilitation programmes, but stresses they are hugely expensive.

“They [rapists] are sick people. They need treatment, but we are a poor society and we cannot provide that. It requires huge resources and constant supervision by doctors,” he says.

Reporting rates are also low in Serbia, with a population of around eight million excluding Kosovo, only 75 victims reported being raped during the whole of 2010.

A study carried out in 2006 by the Institute for Criminological Research suggests that for each rape complaint, another three to five go unreported.

“I believe that many rapes remain unreported, because the victims are ashamed; they also cannot trust the institutions and often end up being blamed for provoking the rapist,” says Sanja Ćopić from the Victimology Society of Serbia.

Like Montenegro, Serbia also lacks dedicated, expert support structures for rape survivors.

“There are no specialised, dedicated segments of the health care system that could provide special help and support needed by the victims,” says Ćopić.

“My message to all women who have been raped is to report the case right away,” says UK rape survivor Helen Stockford (Photo: Jelena Kulidžan)

More Support for UK Victims

After being repeatedly raped for five-and-a-half hours in her home, Helen Stockford found herself at the Bridge, a Sexual Assault Referral Centre, SARC, in Bristol.

She has returned to the Bridge, two years after the attack. Greeted by staff members who helped her when she was at her lowest ebb, Helen describes how she felt when she first came here.

“I was traumatised when I arrived at the Bridge. I was scared to take my clothes off for examination, but they made me as comfortable as they possible could,” she remembers.

Helen was a happy wife and mother of five, until March 20, 2009.

“I took the children to school and saw my husband off to work. Then I returned to do some housework. I saw Mark Shirley in the kitchen. For the next five and a half hours, he put me through such a traumatic experience. It was awful,” she says.

Her voice may be calm, but her body language betrays how much she suffered. 

“When he started raping me, the only thing I could focus on was my family. I was thinking about my children, I was wondering if I would be able to pick them up after school,” she recalls.

Helen reported the crime two days later and the police immediately took her to the Bridge, one of 33 SARCs in England and Wales.

The Bridge is housed within a health clinic, but once you go through the door it feels like a cosy private apartment rather than a sterile, cold, medical environment.

These centres are financed by the state, and their purpose is to provide all the medical care and treatment victims need.

“We are here to provide everything she might need – medical examinations, clean clothes, a toothbrush, food, counselling – all in one place,” explains Debbie Hewlett, the centre manager.

SARCs keep all forensic evidence for seven years, in case a victim, who previously decided against reporting the rape, changes her mind and opts to prosecute.

UK rape survivors may also seek help in dozens of non-governmental organisations dealing with sexual violence, including the Rape Crisis group. 

“About 5,000 victims come to us each year. We offer face-to-face counselling, therapy, self-esteem workshops and services for women who want to report the perpetrator to the police. We provide support from the beginning until the end of the court procedure,” says Yvonne Traynor, chief executive of Rape Crisis South London.

Tougher Sentencing

Sentencing is also much tougher in the UK, where convicted rapists receive on average a jail term of eight years, according to justice ministry figures. The UK’s Sentencing Council has set the minimum sentence at five years, the maximum is life imprisonment.

While life sentences don’t necessarily mean the offender will spend the rest of his days in jail, if released, rapists will be monitored by probation officers.

Detective Chief Inspector Marie Wright [standing] with police officers attached to the specialist Bluestone unit (Photo: Jelena Kulidžan)

The UK has seen great advances in its treatment of rape victims, from the moment they report being attacked to the court trial itself.

“The best improvement is that they have dedicated police departments which deal with sexual violence. Officers are specifically trained to understand what it means to be a sexual violence survivor, their emotional state, so they are now able to talk with them in a more humane way,” says Traynor.

One such police department is the Bluestone unit in Bristol, led by Detective Chief Inspector Marie Wright.

“Before the establishment of this unit in Bristol, the percentage of cases that ever reached the court was about 13 per cent. Now it is 30 per cent,” she says.

Nowadays, only specially-trained lawyers and judges handle rape cases.

But it was not always like this in the UK. During the 1970s, the prosecution of and public attitudes to rape in England and Wales were similar to that in Montenegro and Serbia today.

Victims Fought for Change

A combination of media reports, scandals and raised public awareness led to improvements, as did the fact that rape survivors began to demand better treatment.

“The media exposed several cases that went wrong, which raised questions about the management of issues such as rape. People started asking questions – what are the reasons? Is it the police investigations or the way cases were prosecuted or lack of support?” remembers Dr Beata Cybulska from the Bridge. 

“Women, victims of sexual violence, raised their voices and said, ‘We do not want to go to the police where they will accuse us of not telling the truth. We do not want to be examined in dark and dirty rooms in shabby hospitals. We want to go where they will take care of us’,” Bridge manager Hewlett chips in.

In addition to victims demanding justice, professionals also changed the system from within.

“Some people inside the system had enough power and responsibility to say, ‘In my hospital, at my police station, we are going to do things differently’,” says Liz Kelly, professor of sexual violence studies at the London Metropolitan University.

Helen remains unhappy, however, with her attacker’s sentence. Mark Shirley was sentenced to a nine-year jail term for raping Helen.

Shirley had been previously convicted of murdering a woman and was on probation when he attacked Helen. She believes his sentence is too lenient, but does not regret reporting and prosecuting her rapist.

“My message to all women who have been raped is to report the case right away, however traumatised you feel. If you cannot – at least talk about it,” says Helen.

Change Relies on Victims?

Sentencing policy varies widely across the EU, as Brussels has no direct influence on member state’s sentencing policy. However, the European Commission is calling for new EU legislation to strengthen the rights and protection of victims of crime.

The Council of Europe, on the other hand, is looking at ensuring appropriately severe punishment across the union, but it too will not attempt to harmonise sentencing.

“[The council] does ask for the type of punishments to be handed down to be persuasive enough not to commit rape in the future and to act as a deterrent for others,” says Johanna Nelles from the council’s Gender Equality division.

As Montenegro gears up to join the EU, most of its legal reforms have been driven by pressure from Brussels. However, it seems unlikely Podgorica will change rape sentencing policy under its own steam.

For that to happen, Montenegrin women – including victims - will have to assume the burden themselves and fight for their rights, just as their counterparts did in the UK.

Jelena Kulidžan is a Podgorica-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network

Raped by a ‘Friend’

Helen Stockford, from Bristol in South-West England, was a happily married mother of five, until March 20, 2009 – the day Mark Shirley let himself into her home.

“On that particular day, I took my children to school, saw my husband off to work, came back to do some housework and, as I walked to the kitchen, I noticed Mark Shirley. I asked him how he got in my house and what he wanted,” Helen says.

After just a few minutes, she got the answer.

“He stood up from the kitchen chair and went towards me. From the expression on his face I knew I was in a lot of danger. For the next five-and-a-half hours, he put me through the most traumatic experience. It was awful,” Helen remembers.

Mark Shirley was a former boyfriend of one of Helen’s neighbours. She met him a few years before the attack, not knowing that he was already a convicted rapist.

His previous victim did not survive his attack. He is now serving a nine-year prison sentence for raping Helen.

Three days later, Helen plucked up the courage to go to the police who immediately took her to the Bridge in Bristol – one of 33 Sexual Assault Referral Centres in the UK.

Helen remembers that moment very well: “The examination was painless, the doctors were lovely, no men involved, only women. I got counselling and support from the Bridge and I have to be honest - I would not have got through without them.”

Five Years for Raping a Minor

August 2007 was brutal for one 13-year-old girl from Germany. She came, with her family, to Ulcinj in Montenegro for a holiday. Instead of having fun by the sea, she was raped by a man almost twice her age.

Montenegrin court records detail how the teenager went to a sea-front disco at Millennium with some older girlfriends. According to her testimony, while dancing she noticed a man staring at her. His name was Glareva Mentor, a 25-year-old medical student.

They began chatting and, after a few minutes, Mentor suggested they go outside so they can talk alone. The teenager accepted the invitation without worrying anything was amiss.

But just a few metres outside the club, the young girl found herself fighting off Mentor’s advances. First, he tried to kiss her. She refused and decided to go back into the disco. He pulled her back, hit her twice and pushed her on the ground. Her worst nightmare began. Mentor continued to kiss her as he forcibly removed her trousers and underwear.

The teen begged her assailant to stop, promising she wouldn’t tell anybody. She told the court Glareva instructed her to be quiet, saying, “It is going to last just five minutes.“

She reported him but, throughout the trial, criticised the procedures, saying the system forced her to relive the experience all over again.

Mentor was found guilty of rape and initially sentenced to six years in jail, above the average, which was later reduced to five years on appeal.

Fellow Bio


Jelena Kulidžan

Jelena Kulidžan works for Vijesti, a private TV broadcaster in Montenegro. Her main tasks including daily reporting but she also works as the co-editor and presenter of Prime Time News. 


Topic 2011: Justice

The topic for this year’s programme is justice and fellows are investigating subjects as diverse as privatisation, organised crime, employment law, rape convictions and extradition treaties.


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