Death threats intensify after civil society questions changes to criminal code


Changes to Serbia's criminal code have spurred a barrage of abuse targeted at civil society. The changes adopted in May 2019 include the possibility of life imprisonment without parole for felony murder, rape, copulation with a helpless person and copulation with a child. A debate around the change in the criminal code has been rumbling since the family of Tijana Juric, who was raped and murdered, launched a people's petition calling for tougher sentencing. Despite the emotive topic, during the drafting stages civil society questioned whether the proposal of life imprisonment without the possibility of release violated the constitutional and international commitments to human rights. As a result of their legitimate concerns, civil society groups faced a smear campaign by proponents of harsher sentences. Public officials were condemned for publicly criticising judges who questioned the new law.  

In particular, civil society groups questioned whether there were adequate judicial mechanisms for reviewing a sentence handed to an individual. On 2nd December 2019, a number of legal experts, civil society organisations and academics called for a review of the new provisions. Yet the debate intensified after the father of Tijana Juric appeared on Serbian television and denounced a number of signatories. During his appearance on Questionnaire, Mr Juric publicly vilified the Center for the Rights of the Child as an organisation which works against the interests of children. Soon after, employees of the organisation began to receive death threats, which were so severe that they were later granted a police escort for their own protection. 

The subsequent chain of events saw a drastic increase in aggression aimed at civil society. Immediately afterwards, there were online attacks on organisations started where signatories were characterised as "monsters, protectors of rapists". Leader of extremist group Levijatan released a video statement (posted on social media) after which the threats and attacks intensified. In the video he said:

“These people [human rights defenders] are sick, insane, and deeply disturbed. They are left-wing scumbags. This sick initiative must not be passed in Serbia. We will fight, so that such initiatives are never submitted to the court.” 

He read the names of each organisation and made a specific comment to each of the individuals who signed the initiative. This was followed by online comments which included worrying threats of violence. Many onlooker have highlighted that these brazen threats are indicative of a worsening situation for civil society groups working on human rights issues.