Mural of convicted war criminal Mladic sparks protests, violations at environmental rights protests

Mural of convicted war criminal Mladic sparks protests, violations at environmental rights protests
Environmental rights protests against Rio Tinto's plans to open a lithium mine (REUTERS/Marko Djurica via Gallo Images).

Association

Several organisations have received threats for calling for the removal of a mural of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic and for supporting civic activists Aida Corović and Jelena Jacimovic who threw eggs at the mural in protest. Corović was briefly detainedand may face misdemeanour charges of disturbing public order.

After speaking out in support of the activists, graffiti was sprayed on the premises of the Initiative for Požega with the threat: "We are waiting for you". The premises of the Pride Info Centre was also vandalised with a graffiti glorifying war criminal Ratko Mladic. Additionally, on two separate occasions the grounds of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Belgrade were painted with the message "Ratko Mladić, a Serbian hero". According to YIHR the attacks have been ongoing for months. Activists of the Čuvari/ke vatre group were threatened on Facebook with photos of group members photographed during protests or from private profiles sent to their inboxes after expressing support for Corović and Jacimovic. The Regional Academy for Democracy Development was also intimidated, after officially supporting the removal of the mural, while their president, Balsa Bozovic received hundreds of death threats after a TV debate with Ratko Mladic's lawyer, Branko Lukic. In a statement the organisation said:

“The Regional Academy for the Development of Democracy calls on the competent authorities to react urgently, detect and sanction the perpetrators. Serbia must not send the message again that glorifying war criminals is an official policy, and the protection of perpetrators and those who threaten death is desirable, acceptable and permissible behaviour.”

Djordjo Zujovic, an official of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia, decided to leave Belgrade due to threats against him and his family following his support for the removal of the Mladic mural. Actor and member of the Presidency of the Movement of Free Citizens, Sergej Trifunović, also received death threats after publicly opposing the mural.

Separately, the Women's Association of the Kolubara District (ŽUKO) received death threats for organising a dinner for refugee children on 31st October 2021.

In another incident, several lawyers speaking at protests against a law introducing additional tax burdens for legal practitioners were questioned by police. Lawyers who criticised judicial practices in a private Viber chat group were interrogated as well.

Relating to these concerning restrictions on CSOs, on 16th December 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Serbia stating “that the work of CSOs and NGOs takes place in an environment that is not open to criticism […], and calls on the Serbian authorities to counter the shrinking of the space for civil society and independent media and ensure that they can work free from all restrictions, including intimidation or criminalisation of these organisations and urges the authorities to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to the work of all CSOs”.

Peaceful Assembly

‘Mural must fall’ protests

After the “Mural must fall” protest held in November 2021 in Belgrade, a banner by the organisation Women in Black stating "We will never forget the genocide in Srebrenica" was stolen and publicly burned. The attackers are linked to a right-wing group and posted video material of the incident on social media. In addition, the entrance to the Women in Black office in Belgrade was once again vandalised with insulting graffiti (see previous update for earlier incident). The group deemed the attack to be part of the organised and continuous intimidation it is facing.

Additionally, on 9th November 2021, a planned protest by Youth for Human Rights (YIHR) in front of the Mladic mural was banned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. On the day of the originally scheduled protest, members of the Ministry “identified” citizens who found themselves in the immediate vicinity of the mural.

Lithium mining project halted after protests

Following continuous pressure from civil society and weeks of demonstrations across Serbia during November and December 2021, President Aleksandar Vučić halted a controversial lithium mining project with British-Australian company Rio Tinto.Protests staged, which are considered the largest since Vučić came to power, blocked major highways, roads and bridges in more than 50 locations in Serbia, demanding amendments to the Referendum Act and the repeal of the Expropriation Act, which would facilitate expropriation of land needed for the extraction of lithium in western Serbia. On 8th December 2021, the Serbian government announced the withdrawal of the law from parliament and amendments to the Referendum Act in light of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s opinion. Despite demands of protesters being met, 40 civic groups announced that protests will continue until the lithium mine project is completely scrapped.

During protests, several activists reported being intimidated and were warned by the police of the “risks” for attending gatherings prior to protests taking place.

  • After Milorad Petković posted on Facebook that he would be attending the protest, two days later police showed up at his apartment with a court order for suspicion of selling weapons and narcotics.
  • Similarly, police warned Ljiljana Bralović not to call for people to protest.
  • Police showed up at the workplace of Rade Obradović, a Councilor of the Group of Citizens "Critical Mass" in the municipality of Kula, threatening him with prosecution if he continued to encourage protests on social media.
  • Police visited doctor Željko Bacotić in the early morning to warn him not to engage in opposition work or take part in protests. Similarly, police also visited Mirjana Ilić.
  • Civic activists in Novi Pazar received phone calls from the police discouraging them from protesting.
  • Police also warned activists who submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Internal Affairs about "illegal actions of the police".

Additionally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs installed a dedicated telephone number for reporting protests, blockades and gatherings.

During protests, which blocked roads throughout Serbia, several incidents occurred, including violations against journalists:

  • On 27th November 2021, a man in Kula was injured during a police action where he was detained and later released.
  • Dejan Jovanović was detained for attacking a police official after helping up a police officer in plain clothes who fell down;
  • An N1 journalist was attacked in Gornja Sabanta by a man dissatisfied with the roadblock. Police intervened by removing the driver.
  • Police arrested and/or questioned a journalist and several people protesting (e.g.in Pozega and Novi Sad);
  • High school protests against the excavation of Lithium were monitored and filmed by the police.
  • In Belgrade, a member of the Ministry of Internal Affairs used physical force against two peaceful protesters.
  • During a blockade of the Sabac bridge, several people physically attacked protesters with batons and hammers. According to human rights organisations, local police did not provide protection to people attending the peaceful gathering. During this occasion, a person who stopped an excavator from driving into the gathered crowd has been detained and legally charged.
  • Citizens who took part in the recent protests and traffic blockades received fines of between 5,000 to 40,000 dinars for violating the Law on Traffic Safety on the Road (e.g. Smederevo, Užice, Novi Pazar, Subotica).
  • Journalist and activist Minja Delic was charged with illegally organising a public gathering, for which she faces a misdemeanor fine ranging between 100,000 to 150,000 dinars.

Members of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina and associates of the Pancevo SiTi portal received misdemeanor fines for attending a protest blocking a road. In a reaction, the activists questioned where the police had gathered the information for issuing the misdemeanour fines (name, address, ID number), as at no time their personal information has been registered by the police.

Expression

Several incidents against journalists have been documented, from obstruction on reporting to intimidation and harassment:

  • During a protest, N1 journalist Filip Lukic faced facist and racist insults from a group of people, with police failing to intervene. As a result the reporter had to stop recording.
  • Days later, a N1 TV-crew was prevented from reporting on the Mladic mural after two men stopped them from filming.
  • Another team from N1 television was blocked from leaving the Zrenjanin Industrial Southeast Zone after reporting on working and living conditions of Vietnamese workers on the construction site of the Chinese owned factory "Linglong".
  • N1 television journalist Milan Nikic was insulted and threatened while reporting live from a session of the local parliament in Batocina.
  • A TV Pink journalist team was threatened with violence and insulted while reporting about a graffiti (stating "Kon = Mengele") which was aimed at insulting Predrag Kon, member of the Crisis Staff for the Suppression of COVID-19 Infectious Disease.
  • The Vojvodina Research and Analytical Center (VOICE) announced that their  journalist Ivana Gordić received threats linked to reporting on the conditions in which Vietnamese personnel work within the construction site of the "Linglong" factory in Zrenjanin. During follow-up reporting from the site, journalists from Deutsche Welle and the VOICE portal were intimidated while doing their work.
  • FoNet News Agency journalist Davor Lukač  was physically attacked by unknown men.
  • Danas journalist Snezana Congradin was insulted and had her phone destroyed by members of the far-right “Leviathan” organisation during a public gathering at the Belgrade Youth Centre.
  • The camera of Valjevo Plus television has been damaged during reporting from a roadblock.
  • Prior to the organised environmental protests, journalists were threatened, including N1 TV journalists who received threats against their loved ones, and in the case of VranjeNews journalist Milena Dimić, the police warned her against covering the events.
  • In Sabac, several journalists were threatened, including one journalist who was threatened with lynching in relation to reports on high-ranking officials in the Sabac government.
  • The Crime and Corruption Reporting Network(KRIK) received death threats on Twitter in relation to their reporting about the President’s son. The outlet is also facing a lawsuit linked to investigative reporting on a business person close to state authorities.
  • A NewsMax Adria journalist team was prevented from reporting from the National Assembly. In Bujanovac, the Bujanovacke portal has been banned from covering local parliament meetings; as well as a journalist being excluded from Sombor major’s press conference without explanation.

Separately, the general attitude toward peace activists remained challenging. e.g. the Reconciliation Network (RECOM) condemned discriminatory treatmentby the Serbian Security Information Agency (BIA). This comes after a Kosovar politician’s pension has been blocked following a BIA official initiating a lawsuit claiming damages to his reputation and honour.

Furthermore, the Radio Television of Serbia banned the "Kreni-Promeni" campaign which raises awareness of the exploitation of Lithium by the company Rio Tinto.

In a positive development, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it would drop the misdemeanor procedure against the editor of the Smederevo portal and a member of the Association of Journalists of Serbia, Željko Milojevic, as a result of their reporting on a blockade in Smederevo.