Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Serbia

Political context

Two weeks after the victory of pro-European candidate Mr. Boris Tadic at the February 3, 2008 presidential election, the declaration of independence by Kosovo on February 17, 2008 led to violent demonstrations held by nationalist and extremist groups, during which several human rights defenders and journalists, the United States and United Kingdom embassies, and members of the Albanian minority group (especially in the province of Vojvodina) were attacked and seriously harassed. The State did not provide adequate protection or open investigations. The reactions of Serbian authorities were, at the very least, ambivalent. While President Tadic and the Ombudsman virulently condemned these events, other official reactions rather contributed to legitimise the violence, and even to encourage it. For instance, Mr. Velimir Ilic, the Minister for Infrastructure, stated that these protests "of rage and anger" were "democratic"; the Prime Minister simply spoke of "spontaneous" reactions.

In addition, serious disagreement within Mr. Vojislav Kostunica's Serbian Government as to what action to take on the issue of the European integration of Serbia led to early parliamentary elections in May 2008, which were won by President Tadic's coalition "For a European Serbia". Pro-European democrats and socialists subsequently claimed to prioritise rapprochement with the EU, which requires Serbia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), of which the arrest of Mr. Radovan Karadzic on July 21 remained the most significant example as of the end of 2008.

Defamation campaigns and incitement to violence against human rights defenders

In a society in which nationalistic sentiments persist, human rights defenders who were fighting for recognition of war crimes committed in the 1990s as well as for justice were not particularly supported by the authorities or by public opinion.1 In 2008, these defenders continued to be subjected to insults and threats, particularly from violent extremist groups who considered them as enemies of the homeland, in a climate of impunity and without any real protection provided to them. The situation deteriorated further in early 2008 following the declaration of independence of Kosovo.

For example, insults and incitement to violence against Ms. Natasa Kandic, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC), were spread in February 2008 through many tabloids2 that conducted a broad campaign of defamation against her, some calling for her arrest or elimination, in particular because of her cooperation with the ICTY3 and for recognising Kosovo's independence. On February 19, 2008, Mr. Ivica Dacic, member of the Serbian Socialist Party, also accused Ms. Kandic of undermining "the independence and integrity of the State" after she attended the independence ceremony for Kosovo. On February 21, 2008, the premises of the HLC were attacked with a flare. As of the end of 2008, no investigation into these facts had been conducted. In addition, Ms. Sonja Biserko, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (HCHRS), which works on crimes committed in the 1990s, was also subjected to attacks and threats in the media during October 2008, which accused her of treason, threatened her with death, and published her home address. On September 30, 2008, more direct threats were made against her by over a hundred activists of the far-right gathered outside the offices of HCHRS, with no reaction from the police. Following these threats, Ms. Biserko contacted the head of the police department, who told her that she did not have enough evidence to file a complaint. The situations of Ms. Kandic and Ms. Biserko are particularly representative of the level of social tension prevailing in Serbia and the degree of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of violations against many defenders.

A hostile environment for defenders of LGBT rights

In 2008, members of the gay and lesbian communities continued to be the subject of threats and smear campaigns in the media. In this context, defenders of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people were particularly targeted, and were victims of verbal abuse, harassment, or even physical abuse. Their freedom of peaceful assembly was also limited, amid inadequate police protection.4 Between January and March 2008, the gay rights centre "Queeria", which promotes a culture of non-violence and diversity, received numerous threats by email and on Internet forums. Because of the centre's activities, including its cooperation with the Coalition for a Secular State,5 Queeria activists were violently insulted on the neo-fascist site Storm Front, by means of hateful xenophobic and homophobic messages, as well as descriptions of "punishments" that would be imposed on the defenders. In cooperation with the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM), Queeria filed several complaints. Yet, as of the end of 2008, they had only received a telephone call from the Department of Justice in charge of the Internet, informing them that their complaint had been received but that the police did not have sufficient resources to deal with verbal attacks on the web.6 Further, in March and April 2008, an activist of the organisation "Gay Straight Alliance" (GSA) was subjected to homophobic threats. He was threatened by phone and later found graffiti threatening and insulting him in front of his home. On April 18, the latter complained to the police in the Belgrade municipality of Palilula with the assistance of the GSA President, Mr. Boris Milicevic. The police refused to register the complaint, arguing that the registrar of complaints was closed. Mr. Milicevic was then insulted by a policeman, who forced him to leave the police station. The GSA activist and Mr. Milicevic then went to the main police station of the city of Belgrade, which quickly registered the complaint. The Court of Belgrade subsequently issued a fine of 10,000 dinars (about 100 Euros) or 20 days' imprisonment to the policeman in question, for violating Article 6.2 of the Public Order Act, according to Sections 84, 118, 232 and 235 of the Act on Crimes. Criminal prosecutions were also brought against the officer on the basis of Article 138.1 of the Criminal Code for "endangerment".7

Urgent Intervention issued by the Observatory in 20088

Name of human rights defenderViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Ms. Natasa KandicAttacks / Harassment / Threats / Fear for safetyUrgent Appeal SER 001/0208/OBS 026February 26, 2008

1 See Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC).

2 Including through an article published in the journal Vecernje Novosti on February 19.

3 Ms. Kandic is involved in numerous cases before the ICTY.

4 In 2008, the collective for the defence of LGBT rights "Queer Beograd" was careful not to announce in the media the location of the festival "Queer Belgrad", scheduled from September 18 to 21 at the cinema Rex, so as to ensure the safety of its participants. In September 2008, a Belgrade tabloid published on the cover an article about a "clandestine gay festival", leading to the attack of four people by ten members of the neo-fascist group "Obraz" during the event. Two attackers were quickly arrested by police. The organisation for the rights of lesbians LABRIS sued the leader of the gang who carried out these attacks, which were deplored on September 22, 2008 by the Ministry for Human Rights and Minorities. However, as of late 2008, the judicial proceedings had not led to any result (See LABRIS).

5 The coalition, founded in early 2006 in response to a law on churches and religious communities that strengthened the involvement of the Church in the public sphere, is composed of a dozen NGOs, including Queeria, but also legal experts, academics and political activists. It organises conferences and meetings on human rights, publishes brochures, etc.

6 See Queeria.

7 See LABRIS, Annual Report on LGBT Human Rights Defenders in the OSCE Region, May 2008, and GSA.

8 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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