BCHR Issues Report on Human Rights in Serbia in the January-June 2020 Period

August 15, 2020

Capture HRReport Jan-June 2020The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) today published its Report on the State of Human Rights in Serbia in the first half of 2020, focusing on respect for human rights during the state of emergency. The Report concludes that democracy in Serbia has continued deteriorating and lists grave violations of human rights, particularly as of 15 March 2020, when the state of emergency was imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Decision on the Proclamation of the State of Emergency and all the subsequent measures were adopted by the executive rather than the legislative authorities. Resort to this possibility, although provided for by the Constitution subsidiarily and in exceptional cases, was unjustified. Grave violations of constitutionally guaranteed human and minority rights, including disproportionate restrictions of the freedom of movement, occurred during the state of emergency; numerous examples and accounts of citizens who were beaten up, arrested and detained for violating self-isolation measures they had not been properly notified of were registered.

The Constitutional Court was apparently hibernating during the state of emergency. Sixty-seven days passed from the day the state of emergency was imposed until it rendered its first decision. It only reacted publicly to criticisms of its dormancy. By mid-May, it received a total of 51 initiatives challenging the constitutionality and legality of regulations enacted during the state of emergency: 10 questioned the constitutionality of the Decision on the Proclamation of the State of Emergency and 41 the constitutionality and legality of other regulations adopted since 15 March 2020.

The media situation continued deteriorating in the first half of the year. The number of attacks and pressures against journalists increased, as did the authorities’ rhetoric against impartial outlets. The Government Conclusion of 28 March allowing only the COVID Crisis Headquarters headed by the Prime Minister to release any pandemic-related information was tantamount to centralisation of information and censorship. Violations of media freedoms climaxed with the arrest of Nova portal’s reporter Ana Lalilć on 2 April for causing public anxiety by reporting on the problems in the Vojvodina Clinical Centre during the pandemic.

International institutions and organisations alerted to grave problems with respect to democracy, rule of law and reforms in Serbia in the first half of the year. In its Non-paper, the European Commission noted serious delays and the need to accelerate reforms in the key areas of judicial independence, the fight against corruption, media freedom, the domestic handling of war crimes and the fight against organised crime, specifying that the pandemic created additional challenges. In its Freedom in the World 2020 Report, Freedom House classified Serbia as a hybrid regime, citing data coinciding with BCHR’s annual human rights reports.

The judiciary, as a separate branch of government, did not fulfil the standards and expectations related to the improvement of its efficiency, fairness of access to justice and protection of civil rights. Introduction of “Skype” trials during the state of emergency, denying the defendants a public explanation of the decisions against them, and case law discrepancies resulting from the imposition of different penalties for the same offences committed during the state of emergency, further eroded legal insecurity and public trust in the judiciary.

The Protector of Citizens, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection and the Anti-Corruption Agency were not particularly active in the first half of the year either, especially during the state of emergency, when citizens needed and, indeed, expected greater protection. The parliament’s failure to promptly initiate the procedure to elect the new Equality Commissioner was particularly concerning: this institution has not been performing its duties conferred by law to protect the citizens from discrimination since May, when the prior Commissioner’s term in office expired.

The Report on Human Rights in Serbia in the January-June 2020 Period is available HERE.

This publication is the product of our team, comprising Lazar Stefanović, Snežana Lazarević, Vladica Ilić, Luka Mihajlović, Vesna Petrović, Dušan Pokuševski, Ivan Protić, Goran Sandić, Anja Stefanović, Milena Ančić, Bojan Stojanović, Aleksandar Marković, Ana Trifunović i Duška Tomanović.

The publication of this Report has been supported by the United Nations Human Rights Team in Serbia. The Report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

New FRA quarterly report – Migration: Key fundamental rights concerns – Quarterly bulletin 3 – 2020

July 31, 2020

Capture FRAEuropean Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has published quarterly bulletin no 3 for 2020: Migration: Key fundamental rights concerns for the period from the 1 April to 30 June 2020. The report collects data on the state of fundamental rights of persons arriving to the EU member states. It lights on main trends in the majority of the EU member states in the field of asylum and migration. Additionally to the EU member states, the report gives up date on the key fundamental rights concerns in this area in the Republic of Serbia and North Macedonia.

Quarterly Bulletin no 3 mostly focused on key challenges in the context of COVID-19 pandemic including legal framework changes, restriction of movement, hindered access to the asylum procedure, overcrowding of the accommodation facilities, protection of children as well as hate speech and violence. Report points to slowdowns in the number of asylum seekers due to health measures and restrictions in traveling despite that the enforcement of measures was ease off to certain extent.

BCHR contributed to the report with analyses on the state of affairs in the Republic of Serbia. The report stresses that the Asylum Office resumed procedural actions and that the abolishment of the Government’s Decision on closure of all border crossing for entering into Republic of Serbia in May which led to opening of border crossings and restart of commercial flights. Attention is given to the physical abuse of unaccompanied children in the Asylum Centre Bogovađa and Order of the Ministry of Health from 7 May.

BCHR Files Initiative with Ministry of Internal Affairs to Draft Amendments to Police Act

July 22, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) has filed an initiative with the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs to draft amendments to the Police Act as soon as possible. 

The first half of July 2020 was marked by numerous cases of police ill-treatment of citizens protesting in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac and other cities across Serbia. Dozens of police officers applied force against the protesters without cause, hitting them with their batons, kicking and trampling them, firing teargas at them, shoving them off their bicycles, etc., gravely damaging the reputation of the Serbian police both at home and abroad.

International monitoring bodies have over the recent years criticised compliance with the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment in Serbia, especially by the police. The widespread practice of police ill-treatment is followed by a high rate of impunity of public officials for these acts. BCHR’s perusal of prosecutorial and court cases regarding torture and ill-treatment and extortion of confessions showed that quite a number of public officials, predominantly police officers, went unpunished for these crimes because the statute of limitations expired, while others “paid their dues” by giving money for humanitarian purposes. Most public officials found guilty of torture and ill-treatment or extortion of confessions were sentenced to suspended prison sentences up to six-month.

Most police officers suspected of these crimes went on working not only during the proceedings, but after they were convicted by a final judgment as well. The European Court of Human Rights has on many occasions held that where a State agent has been charged with crimes involving ill-treatment, it is important that he or she be suspended from duty during the investigation or trial and dismissed if he or she is convicted, which is crucial for preserving public trust in the work of the state authorities.

This is why the Police Act must be amended to provide for the mandatory suspension of police officers, against whom disciplinary proceedings have been initiated on suspicion that they had intentionally used excessive physical or psychological coercion against individuals, and/or against whom criminal proceedings have been instituted on suspicion that they had committed the crimes of torture or ill-treatment or extortion of confessions. The BCHR also suggests that the amendments allow the public prosecutor to request the suspension of a police officer before the initiation of ordinary or summary criminal proceedings where a person raises an arguable claim or makes a credible assertion or where there are sufficiently clear indications that these crimes have been committed.

The officers should be suspended pending the adoption of a final decision in the criminal and/or disciplinary proceedings against them and dismissed ex lege in the event they are convicted. Serbian law will thus have fulfilled the above requirements under the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

BCHR lawyers stand ready to assist the Ministry of Internal Affairs in drafting the amendments to the Police Act.

The Initiative is available in Serbian here.

Testimony of Stefan Miletić about police ill-treatment he suffered during the protest on 8 July 2020

July 14, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights filed a criminal report with the Belgrade First Basic Public Prosecution Service against the police officers who took part in Stefan Miletić’s ill-treatment on 8 July 2020. Herewith the testimony of this young man, who was brutally beaten up on Terazije during the protest that evening: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeM3GTY65Mo  

The BCHR also filed an initiative with the Protector of Citizens to launch a review of the Interior Ministry’s work and arranged Miletić’s examination by a court medical examiner, whose report will be forwarded to the Prosecution Service and the Protector of Citizens.

Stefan Miletić is just one of the many victims of police brutality who sought legal aid from the BCHR in the last few days.

Remembering Vojin Dimitrijević’s Words and His Topical Book “Reign of Terror – A Study on Human Rights and State Terror”

July 9, 2020

Vojin Dimitrijević, a law professor, intellectual, eminent champion of human rights and democracy and long-standing Director of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, was born on this day 9 July 1932. We recall what he said in his book “Reign of Terror – A Study on Human Rights and State Terror,” which is just as topical today as it was when he wrote it in 1984.

Vojin D_eng-01

Having once written a book on terrorism as a method of political struggle against government, I was left with the impression that the terror exercised by those in power was in fact more dangerous, that it took much more innocent victims, that it diminished human dignity much more and that its existence was a permanent threat to society. This terror, however, remained for the most part neglected, not only by me – but in academic literature in general. Lawyers, in particular, due to dilemmas both contrived and real – an issue that will be discussed further – have done precious little in contributing to the understanding of and clarifying the existence of the reign of fear.

It is clear, beyond any doubt, that a study of this length can only concern the governance through and by introduction of fear and anxiety as a political method alone. Such analysis requires generalization, through identification of the common traits of modern reigns of fear, which are in the focus of this study, and their comparison to occurrences in the past. I recognize that this approach may be contested as ahistorical, since it does not always take into account all the specific and unique circumstances and causes. However, to fully yield to such a remark would mean that the science of politics, as an attempt to establish certain general concepts and determine universal rules, is impossible. That risk, therefore, is one that has to be taken.

Belgrade, 15 November 1984
V.D.”

We should read “Reign of Terror” and refuse to live in it! 

“Reign of Terror” is available in PDF at: https://www.fabrikaknjiga.co.rs/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The-Reign-of-Terror.pdf

 

Press Council Upholds Five BCHR Complaints

July 6, 2020

Capture savet za stampu engThe Press Council’s Complaints Commission issued five decisions upholding BCHR’s complaints regarding anti-migrant comments published on the Facebook profiles of the Belgrade daily Blic and the Srbija danas portal The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights had filed four complaints against Blic and one complaint against Srbija danas, because of the posted comments amounting to hate speech and discrimination against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; these comments were not only offensive but incited direct and indirect violence as well.

In all five cases, the Commission found the two outlets in violation of Section IV of the Press Code of Ethics (Journalists’ Responsibilities) on the journalists’ obligation to oppose everyone violating human rights or promoting any form of discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence; and Section V of the Code (Due Diligence) under which journalists must be aware of the risk of discrimination being spread by media and do their utmost to avoid discrimination based, inter alia, on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, or national or social origin.

Although the texts that elicited the comments were not disputable in themselves, the Complaints Commission found that the outlets’ staff should have borne in mind that discriminatory posts on social media encouraged the dissemination of prejudice and hate against migrants and that their removal in the impugned cases would not have amounted to a restriction of the freedom of speech; rather, the outlets were under the obligation to oppose anyone violating human rights, advocating discrimination and hate, and inciting violence.

Given that the posts were published on the Facebook profiles of Blic, which is followed by around 950,000 people, and of Srbija danas, which has over 300,000 followers, the decisions of the Press Council’s Complaints Commission are poignant public criticism of media overstepping the bounds of freedom of speech and jeopardising minority groups, in this case the migrants, with their discriminatory texts. Such decisions by the Press Council, an independent self-regulatory body rallying publishers and owners of print and online media and news agencies, as well as media professionals, are also a welcome and appropriate response to the increasingly frequent hate speech in the traditional and social media. The BCHR will continue to monitor and react to all posts disseminating hate speech, inciting discrimination and undermining the fragile culture of human rights and tolerance in Serbia.