The Government of Serbia has this week appealed to a US court to spare the life of one of its citizens, Avram Nika, currently facing execution in Nevada.
In a ground-breaking intervention, the first of its kind for Serbia, the Government expresses “grave doubts as to the validity of the death sentence rendered against Mr Nika”, citing multiple failures by the State of Nevada.
Serbia’s amicus curiae ('friend of the court') brief, submitted today to Nevada’s Washoe District Court, describes how Mr Nika - a marginalised Serbian Roma who couldn’t speak English - was denied translation and consular services by the Nevada authorities, rendering him unable to participate meaningfully in his trial. As a result, his defence was perfunctory, with no mitigating evidence presented, and his death sentence became a virtual certainty.
Mr Nika, who is now being assisted by Reprieve’s EC Project, was sentenced to death in 1995 for murder. The Serbian consulate was not informed of his arrest, in violation of state and international law, and was thus prevented from providing crucial assistance which could have saved Mr Nika’s life.
The amicus brief notes that Mr Nika was “particularly vulnerable to the denial of consular assistance due to his inability to speak English and his lack of familiarity with the US legal system and culture”. It explains how “the state portrayed Mr Nika as an evil foreigner... Evidence that Mr Nika…was a hard-working family man who had been…forced to work in… chemically toxic glass factories as a child due to his family’s poverty, and discriminated against due to his membership in a marginalised ethnic group, could have balanced the impact of the state’s negative characterisation of Mr Nika on the jury.”
Explaining its intervention, Serbia cites a “national commitment to human rights” in line with European norms, as well as a determination to ensure fair trials for its citizens abroad.
Reprieve investigator Katherine Bekesi said: “If the Serbian consulate had been informed of Mr Nika’s arrest, it would have provided crucial assistance, including translation, legal advice and key mitigating evidence, which could have saved Mr Nika’s life. The state of Nevada must face up to its deplorable failings in this case and order a new trial.”
Notes for editors:
1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell at Reprieve’s Press Office on +44 (0) 20 7427 1082 / (0) 7791 755 415
2. A beloved brother and uncle, Avram Nika was born in a small rural town not far from Belgrade, on February 12th, 1970. Born into a third generation of grinding poverty, he has also experienced long-term prejudice and discrimination due to his membership of a marginalised ethinic group, the Roma.
Avram was charged with murder in 1994 and, in a flagrant breach of the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights, arresting authorities in Nevada failed to notify the Serbian consulate of Avram’s detention. His trial counsel did nothing to correct this; nor did they conduct any investigation work into his family background, education or mental health problems in Serbia.
Avram’s beloved brother Sveta, and his family, are unable to visit him because they live in Serbia. They were not told about Avram’s plight until four years after his conviction, preventing them from testifying in his defense. In the end, only two people testified on Avram’s behalf.
Avram is currently held at the notorious Ely State Prison. The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the prison after an investigative report described the conditions as being “as horrific as any we have ever seen.”
3. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.
Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.
Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’