Events of 2011

Serbia made little discernible progress on human rights issues in 2011, despite the European Parliament in January ratifying the European Union's Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia, and the arrests of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, the two remaining fugitives wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The situation of ethnic minorities remains concerning, independent journalists face threats and violence, and the weak asylum system needs reform. Rising tensions with Kosovo have exacerbated Serbia's dialogue with the EU.

In late July the Kosovo government sent armored units to Kosovo's northern border, populated by Kosovo Serbs, in an unsuccessful attempt to seize control of two crossing points. Local Serbs erected roadblocks to stop them and a shootout erupted, killing one Kosovo policeman. In late August German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Belgrade and warned Serbian authorities they must normalize relations with Kosovo for Serbia to move closer to EU membership.

War Crimes Accountability

In May and July, respectively, the two remaining ICTY war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic, wartime Bosnian Serb military commander, and Goran Hadzic, wartime leader of the Croatian Serb separatist forces, were arrested on Serbian soil, ending the long period of impunity for war crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In his visit to Serbia in September, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz commended the Serbian government for arresting Mladic and Hadzic, but also stressed the importance of Serbia's technical cooperation with the tribunal regarding ongoing trials. Additionally, he underlined the importance of regional cooperation in prosecuting war criminals.

Domestic war crimes prosecutions have proceeded steadily, although the Serbian War Crimes Chamber has faced increasing criticism for limited progress in domestic war-related criminal proceedings, and for indictments of individuals for war crimes that were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.

In March Jovan Divjak, a Bosnian army wartime general, was arrested by Austrian police under a Serbian arrest warrant in Austria over charges that he committed war crimes in 1991 against Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) troops on Dobrovoljacka Street in Sarajevo. Many NGOs and NGO spokespeople, including the president of the Helsinki Committee of Serbia, condemned the indictment as shameful and provocative, especially because Divjak is an active member of the NGO community. The Korneuburg District Court in Austria declined Serbia's request for extradition, and Divjak was released in July. There have been several other high-profile indictments and arrests for war crimes against the JNA – including against Ejup Ganic, former de facto Bosnian vice-president during the war, and Ilija Jurisic, former wartime high ranking official in the Ministry of Interior – all of which were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence and pressure from NGOs and government officials.

Freedom of Media

Hostile acts against independent media outlets and journalists remained a serious problem. Milan Savatovic was sentenced to 10 months of house arrest in May, three years after the 2008 brutal attack on Bosko Brankovic, a cameraman with the B92 media company, during a protest against Radovan Karadzic's arrest. Savatovic's two accomplices received suspended sentences. Journalistic associations criticized the light sentences, arguing that Serbian law does not adequately protect journalists.

In January and February the Insider television show reported in a series entitled "Fraud of the Century" on alleged financial abuses in the mining basin of Kolubara, near the town of Lazarevac. In an apparent act of intimidation after the report, unknown perpetrators in Lazarevac put up posters "announcing" the death of Insider journalists.

Danilo Zuza and Milos Mladenovic, who are believed to be associated with extremist nationalist groups, were arrested for the July 2010 beating of Teofil Pancic, a political commentator. In September 2010 they were sentenced to three months in prison, although the legally proscribed penalty for the crime is six months to five years. However, due to their lack of previous criminal records and their ages (both 20-years-old) they were sentenced below the legal minimum. Pancic appealed the low sentences. In November the Court of Appeals in Belgrade sentenced Mladenovic and Zuza to seven additional months.

Serbia's government is currently examining a long-awaited draft law on media strategy forwarded by the Ministry of Culture. Journalist NGOs and associations in Serbia have criticized the draft for allowing continued state ownership of media and for what they say are inadequate safeguards against political interference regarding media content.

Treatment of Minorities

Roma continue to suffer discrimination and attacks. In March a Roma boy was repeatedly verbally insulted and beaten outside his high school; the young men responsible were arrested but have not yet been charged. In a similar incident in May three individuals beat a young Roma adult in a Belgrade bus. They have been arrested but not yet charged.

Roma families living in informal settlements in Belgrade face forced evictions with little access to alternative housing. Twelve Roma families were evicted from their homes under Pancevo Bridge in June without notice. Police escorted them to the outskirts of Belgrade to live in metal containers without sanitation or electricity. Five families were evicted from their homes in Skadarska Street, Belgrade, and spent the next night sleeping in city parks, despite a coalition of 22 NGOs urging the authorities to provide alternative housing.

Human Rights Defenders

A gay rights pride parade set for October 2 was cancelled over fears of mass violence. Police security assessments showed there could have been riots and clashes between extremist right-wing groups and marchers. Many local and international NGOs accused the authorities of giving into threats and for not adequately tackling hate speech. In her statement, Antje Rothemund, head of the Council of Europe Office in Belgrade, said she was deeply concerned about the degree of hatred and violence in Serbian society that led to the event's cancellation.

In April 2011 a Serbian court sentenced far right leader Mladen Obradovic to two years in prison for inciting violence during the 2010 gay pride march. Belgrade's Higher Court ruled that Obradovic, leader of extremist group Honor, used violence to disrupt the gathering in order to incite hatred and discrimination. The court sentenced 13 others to prison terms of 8 to 18 months. Gay activists and liberals said the sentences were important as the first ever in Serbia for discrimination against gays, but complained they were too lenient.

Asylum Seekers and Internally Displaced Persons

Serbia's law on asylum went into effect in April 2008, transferring the power for making asylum decisions from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR) to the Serbian asylum office. According to Ministry of Interior figures, 2,134 asylum seekers were registered in Serbia between the start of January and end of August, a striking jump from 522 in 2010. The rise appears to be due to an influx of migrants through Greece, Turkey, and Macedonia. There are currently two centers for asylum seekers in Banja Koviljaca and Bogovadja in Serbia; the one in Bogovadja opened in June and is already at capacity. There have been no reports of poor treatment or abuse so far, but UNHCR reports that overcrowding is likely.

In March the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP), in cooperation with UNHCR, published an IDP vulnerability assessment. It showed there were 73,358 refugees in Serbia, most of them of Croatian origin, and 97,286 persons from Kosovo with displacement-related needs in Serbia.

UNHCR reported in March that Serbia (including Kosovo) sent 28,900 asylum seekers to Europe and North America in 2010. The largest group of asylum seekers in the world in 2010 were from Serbia (including Kosovo), according to UNHCR. According to Serbia's minister of interior, 95 percent of Serbian asylum applicants in Western European countries belong to ethnic minorities, many of them Roma of Serbian and Kosovo origin.

Key International Actors

The European Parliament's ratification of the EU's Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia marked a key step toward the latter's membership in the union. The resolution particularly underlined the importance of eliminating parallel structures in the north of Kosovo and the need to improve treatment of minorities.

In October the European Commission recommended that Serbia become a candidate to join the EU "on the understanding that Serbia reengages on the dialogue with Kosovo ." The accompanying progress report commended Serbia's judicial reform efforts and improved legal and policy frameworks for human rights protection, but called for greater efforts to counter threats and violence against journalists and the media and to improve the status of Roma.

Following a review in March the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Serbian authorities to halt forced evictions for Roma and improve their access to education and registration. In a September report on Serbia Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, stressed the need to counter hate speech by extreme right groups, ensure protection of journalists, and improve human rights for Roma.

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