PRESIDENT Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia faces a dilemma over what to do with opposition leader Vuk Draskovic and his wife, who remain under guard in a hospital a month after they were arrested and severely beaten by police.
To proceed with a show trial would risk major anti-regime protests that could provide an outlet for other grievances, such as growing economic hardships fueled by UN sanctions.
It could also prompt new international condemnation of Mr. Milosevic and hamper his efforts to build support for a plan widely seen here as a bid to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.
On the other hand, the Draskovics' release would return to the political arena the one man capable of galvanizing Serbia's feud-riven opposition and its only charismatic crowd-drawer. It would also be perceived as a sign of weakness by Milosevic that could encourage demonstrations he is anxious to avoid.
"Milosevic has a problem," says Natasha Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Fund, a Belgrade-based human rights monitoring group. "He knows that when Draskovic is freed, it will be a very dangerous moment."
A Western diplomat suggests: "The longer Draskovic stays in jail, the more likely he will become a rallying point."
Mr. Draskovic, the head of the Serbian Renewal Movement - known by the initials SPO - and his wife, Danica, an executive committee member and a prominent politician in her own right, were arrested hours after June 1 clashes between opposition protesters and police in downtown Belgrade in which one police officer was killed.
They were held on preliminary charges of undermining the constitutional order and interfering with the police.
The couple was seized in a pre-dawn raid by police commandos, who swarmed into the SPO headquarters without a warrant. Witnesses, including journalists, have recounted how Draskovic was handcuffed and forced to run a gantlet of officers as they kicked and beat him with truncheons. Both he and his wife, who heads the most radical wing of the SPO, were allegedly beaten while being driven to jail.
Only after international pressure, including protests by French President Francois Mitterrand, and Greek and United States officials, were the couple moved from Belgrade's main prison to a hospital for treatment.
The state has until July 1 to decide whether to formally indict the Draskovics, seek a court-ordered extention of their incarceration pending further investigation, or let them go.
But, while the deadline is prescribed by law, the decision on how to proceed will have little to do with jurisprudence in a country that has retained its communist-designed legal system.
"The decision will not be made by a judge. It will be made in a backroom," says Jovan Koprivica, a leading criminal lawyer deeply involved in politics. "For Milosevic, peace in Serbia is most important. The situation is so unstable that a tiny conflict can provoke trouble."
Milosevic has so far reaped several important strategic benefits from the Draskovic arrests, including renewed infighting among Serbia's main opposition parties as they jockey to fill the leadership vacuum.
"The opposition is strong with Draskovic," Kandic says. "Without Draskovic, it is weak. Milosevic knows this very well."
The Serb leader exploited the opposition leadership crisis by having state-run Belgrade television, the main custodian of his power, air footage of the June 1 clashes that carefully painted the Draskovics as the chief protagonists.
"It was very good propaganda," Kandic says. "No civilian was killed. Only a policeman. Now, normal people believe the SPO is an aggressive party, and it is good to keep Draskovic in prison."
Stjepan Gredelj, a sociologist, says the propaganda and the beatings meted out by police to the Draskovics and others during and after the clashes have further dampened overt expressions of anti-Milosevic sentiments.
"Fear is very deeply rooted now in people," Mr. Gredelj says. "People are also exhausted from the economic crash."
For these reasons, analysts speculate the regime may believe it can reach a face-saving resolution to the Draskovics' case that averts a drawn-out show trial.
Instead of indicting the couple on the more serious charge of undermining the constitutional order, which could carry up to 15 years in jail, the state may simply charge interference with the police, a misdemeanor involving a far shorter term.
Senior SPO members say they believe the regime will bow to international pressure and release the Draskovics this week.
Mr. Koprivica, however, says he believes it is unlikely Milosevic will opt for leniency. Yet, he adds, "the regime doesn't know what to do. It would be happiest if Draskovic didn't exist."