Violence at #1od5miliona protests in Belgrade

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, protests against President Aleksandar Vučić entered the fifteenth consecutive week. While all of the previous protests had taken place peacefully, on 16th March 2019 a mobilisation in Belgrade turned violent. Clashes took place between protesters and police after participants broke into the National Radio Television (RTS) building, led by opposition representative Boško Obradović. They demanded that the RTS news editor allow them to address the public, live on TV. The editorial team denied the request and the police beat, pushed and dragged protesters out of the building. The police later informed the public that all protesters who entered building would be prosecuted.

The next day on 17th March 2019, opposition leaders announced another protest outside the Presidential Building in Belgrade. The protest took place while Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was due to give a media conference about the previous night's clashes. Protesters organised by encircling the Presidential Building, preventing the president from leaving. The situation quickly escalated. As clashes broke out the police used excessive force against protesters by using tear gas to disperse the crowds. Onlookers and watchdog organisations claimed that the use of force in this instance was disproportionate as there was no risk to public safety or property. In a statement, the Belgrade Human Rights and Democracy House condemned the actions of Serbian police during both protests by saying: 

“Preventing unrest and the protection of people and property is the main police task in securing public gatherings. An incorrect estimate of the security risk from the entering the (state) RTS television building and the lack of appropriate reaction contributed to the escalation of violence.”

18 protesters were arrested and detained in both protests. Opposition leaders, lawyers and parents of arrested protesters staged a further protest outside the police station where the protesters were being held. Despite pleas calling for their release, one of the protesters was handed a 30-day prison sentence for entering RTS, while another was fined 20.000 RSD (approx. 170 EUR) for attacking police officers.

On 18th March 2019, leaders of the Alliance for Serbia and the organisers of the 1 in 5 Million protests addressed a news conference on calling for the release of the young people arrested during the weekend protests in Belgrade. Students from the Languages High School in Belgrade staged a protest on Monday over the arrest of fellow students charged with involvement in the protests and clashes at RTS. On Monday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said he will grant amnesty to everyone arrested at the protest if they ask for it. However, this does not apply to the protesters who were involved in criminal damage during the confrontation or those that attacked police officers.

Apart from Belgrade, the protests took place also in other cities, where several incidents were reported. One of the organisers of the protest 1 of 5 Million protest in Žitorađa, was assaulted. The protest organiser, Milan Blagojević said that he beaten by cabinet of the president of the municipality, Ivan Stanojević. On the other hand, Stanojević dismisses the charges and says that he was beaten. Blagojević and another organiser were interrogated by police for up to 48 hours. In a separate incident, a local organiser of the 1 in 5 Million protests in Negotin suffered serious injuries to the head when he was assaulted in front of his home. The activist said he was confronted by three masked individuals before being assaulted. 

Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, two people who set the journalist Milan Jovanović’s house on fire were arrested. The Mayor of Grocka, Dragoljub Simonovic, was arrested on suspicion that he had ordered the attack after Jovanović had exposed corruption in the municipality. After Simonovic admitted to choreographing the crime, the prosecutor asked for a maximum prison sentence of 8 years. A Belgrade court, however later ordered the release of the Grocka Mayor from police custody, and Dragoljub Simonovic is currently awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the journalist Milan Jovanović was granted permanent police protection and escort.

The protests have also sparked a national conversation about media freedoms. Media coverage on the night when protesters entered the RTS building caused a series of reaction by politicians. A special N1 television program was described by representatives of the Serbian government as scandalous and hypocritical. It is important to recognise that N1 was the only TV station that reported the fracas from RTS. The Independent Journalists Associations of Serbia and Vojvodina (NUNS and NDNV) said that the incidents in RTS were a consequence of the “choking” of media freedom, as well as a hostile atmosphere in society and abolition of public dialogue. The journalist association attributed blame to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party for creating this environment.

Association

On 11th March 2019, the hallway of the building in front of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Office was vandalised with a number of offensive messages. "Ratko Mladic" (war criminal convicted for the Srebrenica massacre) and "No division” (referencing Kosovo) were sprayed outside the CSO's office, after the Youth Initiative recently removed similar graffiti (including “Kosovo is Serbia”) from a public building in Belgrade. The door of the office was also covered with stickers of eight famous women from Serbian history, saying “these women are our pride, you cannot be even their shadow". The organisation said that nationalist groups are increasingly targeting human rights groups. 

On 8th March 2018, the activist Ksenija Radovanović from the initiative Don't let Belgrade d(r)own was physically attacked at the BeFem festival where she received an award for her contribution to feminism in 2018, when one of guests insulted and then struck her. A man was later arrested in connection with the incident and given an eight month prison sentence for attacking Radovanović.