BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbian lawmakers on Saturday approved a long-awaited law that aims to shed light on the fate of hundreds of children whose parents fear might have been stolen from birth clinics throughout the Balkan country.
The bill passed on a 136-0 vote in the 250-member assembly. Two lawmakers abstained. The high number of absent lawmakers was unrelated to the bill, but an ongoing boycott of parliament sessions by opposition parties and other reasons.
The law resulted from a 2013 European Court of Human Rights ruling which obliged Serbia to create a mechanism for providing answers to parents seeking information about their children.
The chilling scandal first erupted years ago when parents went public with suspicions their babies hadn’t been stillborn or died at birth as they were told but had been kidnapped as part of an organized criminal scheme.
Most of the parents were unable to obtain proper medical documentation about their children’s deaths or trace where the newborns were buried. Some families were told documents were destroyed in floods or fires.
The new law envisions court proceedings to determine what happened to the children or offers compensation of up to 10,000 euros ($11,000) if the facts cannot be established.
Independent experts initially criticized the proposed bill, saying it served as a way to give parents payouts rather than to establish the truth. The government made last-minute additions that included forming a special commission with the parents’ representatives and a guarantee that cases could be reopened if new evidence surfaces.
Officials have warned that establishing facts could be hard as most cases date back to the era of the former Yugoslav federation, which dissolved in a series of wars in the 1990s and became seven new nations. They say the parents’ suspicions likely resulted from a combination of possible criminal action and state negligence.
At a protest last week outside the parliament building in Belgrade, a few dozen parents demanded that the bill be withdrawn, angry that it allows for cases to dropped if they seem unsolvable.
“No mother will agree to sell the truth about her baby for 10,000 euros,” said Mirjana Novokmet, who has tried to find out what happened to her first child since 1978.
Novokmet, 19 at the time, was told at a Belgrade clinic that her baby boy was stillborn. She wasn’t allowed to see him, and she has not been able to determine with certainty why he died or where he is buried.
“I am certain that he is alive,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I believe someone took him or sold him, within or outside the country.”
Katarina Golubovic, a legal expert from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, compared the complexity of the problem with dealing with war crimes or organized crime.
“We are not talking about one, or dozens, we are talking about more than a thousand people,” she said.