Over 13,000 applications have been made over the past decade for people to be cleared of Communist-era offences - the most controversial being a request to declare Nazi-allied leader Milan Nedic not guilty.
Twenty-five higher courts in Serbia received a total of 13,079 rehabilitation requests and approved 7,116 of them between April 2006 and December 2015, court records obtained by BIRN show.
After someone has been rehabilitated by a higher court, their family can then apply to have seized property restored to them, or they can be awarded compensation.
Serbia’s Justice Ministry told BIRN that the country paid a total of 737,804 euros between January 1, 2014 and July 31, 2015 to people who were judged by the higher courts to have had their rights violated by the Communist-era authorities.
The country adopted a rehabilitation law in 2006, allowing people or the surviving relatives of those who claimed to have had their lives threatened or freedoms abused by the Communist regime to appeal to have their names cleared.
The law was one of several adopted after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 aimed at restoring justice for those who were persecuted or had property expropriated during the Communist period following WWII.
So far, Serbian courts have rehabilitated former government officials, mayors and ordinary citizens but also members of Yugoslavia’s former Karadjordjevic royal family.
After WWII, the royal family was ousted and its property confiscated. In recent years, Serbia rehabilitated Prince Paul, Queen Mary, King Petar II and their closest relatives.
After the last Yugoslav king, King Peter II, was rehabilitated in September, the descendants of the former royal family now have no legal obstacles to seeking the return of their confiscated property, which according to media reports is worth tens of millions of euros and includes villas, houses, land, furniture and pieces of art.
Serbia this year also rehabilitated Chetnik leader Dragoljub Draza Mihailovic, who was executed for high treason and Nazi collaboration in 1946.
Even more controversially, a court is now considering whether to rehabilitate Milan Nedic, the Nazi-backed leader of a puppet government which ruled Serbia from 1941 until 1944. During that period, Nedic’s administration collaborated with the Nazi regime and assisted in some of its crimes.
Nedic’s rehabilitation process, which started in December in Belgrade, sparked public outcry, with critics saying that it suggests Serbia is willing to forgive fascist collaborators and war criminals.
Milovan Pisarri, a Belgrade historian who specialises in the Holocaust and WWII in Yugoslavia, said that if Nedic is rehabilitated, it would send a very dangerous message.
“For the people who live in this country, it would be a clear sign that rehabilitating fascism is possible. That would be even worse for Serbia on the international level,” he suggested.
Pisarri noted that Efraim Zurof from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an organisation dedicated to hunting down Nazi criminals and confronting anti-Semitism, recently said that the rehabilitation of Nedic would be “an insult to the victims of the Nazis”.
Under Nedic’s government, Belgrade was the first city in Europe to be declared ‘Judenfrei’ - free of Jews. By the end of WWII, about 90 per cent of the Jewish population in Serbia had been murdered.
But the proposed rehabilitation of Nedic is not only problematic from the point of view of the repression of Jews, argued Jovan Byford, a lecturer at the London-based Open University and an expert on the Holocaust.
“He was a head of the administration that was against the [Communist] Partisans and whose police had a camp where torture and executions took place,” Byford said.
However, some argue that Nedic’s name should be cleared, among them Bojan Dimitrijevic, a Belgrade-based historian who has testified at several rehabilitation trials.
Dimitrijevic insisted that Nedic was not a traitor or a war criminal, as he was branded by the Communists.
“I think he consciously sacrificed himself for something he thought was the continuation of his politics - to keep Serbia away from the war as much as possible,” Dimitrijevic said, referring to the belief that Nedic traded the lives of Jews in order to save Serbs.
Among the 25 courts, the biggest number of rehabilitation requests to have been approved were in the capital Belgrade, followed by the city of Novi Sad, the capital of the province of Vojvodina.
Compared to other regions of Serbia, Vojvodina’s courts received the largest number of requests because of the province’s controversial situation during and after WWII.
During the war, Vojvodina was split between the governments of Croatia and Serbia. The Western part of the province was part of a Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia, while its eastern part was ruled by the government led by Milan Nedic.
The province at that time had a mixed population, with large numbers of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. After WWII, the Yugoslav Communist government expelled most of the Germans in retaliation and confiscated their property.
The Yugoslav government also confiscated land from rich landowners, and they and the expropriated ethnic Germans now constitute a large proportion of the rehabilitation requests in Vojvodina.