But in the late 1960s he began a side career
defending writers, artists and political dissidents who dared to
criticize Communist Yugoslavia. By the mid-1970s he had become one
of the accused — and something of an international cause célèbre
because of it.
In March 1976, Mr. Popovic was sentenced to a year
in prison for “maliciously spreading false information and causing
public disorder,” the Communist authorities declared. His supposed
crime was agreeing with the views of a client, a dissident and poet
named Dragoljub S. Ignjatovic.
The charges stemmed from courtroom arguments that
Mr. Popovic had made two years earlier, when he tried to introduce
evidence supporting Mr. Ignjatovic’s claim that Yugoslavia’s
economic policies were failing.
Less than two weeks after Mr. Popovic was
sentenced, and after international human rights and legal groups had
publicized his case, a group of 106 prominent American lawyers
signed a petition asking President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia to
The signers included Ramsey Clark, the attorney
general under President Lyndon B. Johnson; Telford Taylor, a lead
prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War II;
and Cyrus R. Vance, the president of the New York City Bar
Association, who would be named secretary of state by President
Jimmy Carter the next year.
An appeals court suspended Mr. Popovic’s sentence
in late May, though it banned him from practicing law for a year.
Mr. Popovic (his full name is pronounced SIR-ja
POE-pa-vich) went on to represent more dissidents. In 1984, he was
asked to defend many of the so-called Belgrade Six, a group of
Yugoslavs charged with holding meetings for the purpose of
“abolishing the existing government.”
The dubiousness of the charges — the meetings were
public and had gone on for years — and the Yugoslav authorities’
treatment of Mr. Popovic drew international attention. As he was
preparing his case, prosecutors listed him as a potential witness,
disqualifying him under Yugoslav law from serving as a defense
After Yugoslavia splintered and Mr. Milosevic rose
to power in the late 1980s advocating Serbian nationalism, Mr.
Popovic was among the first to speak out against him. A magazine he
started in 1990 — its title, Vreme, means “time” in Serbian — became
a leading anti-Milosevic voice.
“When Milosevic ‘cleansed’ the media, we suddenly
got a lot of reporters,” Mr. Popovic said in a 2011 interview with a
Slovenian weekly. “This was an excellent opportunity to do
He left Yugoslavia the next year to live in the
United States, in part because of the political climate under Mr.
Milosevic. Later, as the Bosnian war expanded, he accused many
Serbs, even opponents of Mr. Milosevic, of allowing Serbian
nationalism to blind them to their complicity in widespread
“The people are sunk in their passivity because
they know they are guilty,” he told The New York Times in 1997.
“They know the lies they took in — they know they triumphed when
Sarajevo was bombed. As a nation they have lost all self-respect.”
He returned to Belgrade in 2000, after Mr.
Milosevic was ousted.
In recent years, he represented the family of the
former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated
in 2003. Mr. Djindjic, a reformer who sought alliances with Europe,
allowed for Mr. Milosevic and others to be extradited to The Hague
to face war-crimes charges. Mr. Popovic argued that the
assassination was essentially a coup attempt by nationalist
supporters that involved far more than the 12 members of the secret
police and organized crime who were convicted in the killing in
Mr. Popovic was born on Feb. 24, 1937, in
Belgrade. His name sometimes appears with the middle initial M., a
Serbian custom that signifies the first letter of his father’s first
name. He received his law degree from the University of Belgrade in
His survivors include his wife and four children.
He is not related to a prominent younger man of the same name who
was among the leaders of Otpor, a student group whose demonstrations
helped lead to the ouster of Mr. Milosevic in 2000.
In the 1970s, Mr. Popovic was a founding partner
of the World Association of Lawyers, which focused on international
legal issues. In the 1980s he was part of a prominent group of
lawyers who tried to end the death penalty in Yugoslavia, where
executions were carried out by firing squad. In the early ’90s he
was president of the European Movement in Serbia, which supports
integration with the European Union.
Mr. Popovic represented a wide range of clients,
not just those whose political views he might share. He represented
people accused of war crimes and political leaders who supported
brutal violence. In the shifting and often confusing alliances and
divisions of Balkan politics, he said one constant should be the
right of everyone to an honest justice system.
“My father had an idealistic understanding that a
lawyer is most needed for those who have many enemies, and those are
political prisoners,” he once said. “Against them are the media, the
state, the court, the prosecution, and sometimes even their family.”