How to resist repression

Who gets arrested in Serbia

Vesna Jelicic

TUE, 25 JUL 2000

Belgrade, July 14, 2000 - The grandfather of soldier Aleksandar Vukovic killed in action in Kosovo last year received a few days a medal for merits in the field of defense and security of the first order, and the day before yesterday in front of the building of the command of the Third Army in Nis, to the astonishment of passers-by, the late soldier’s father Dusan was tearing and treading on the decree on the decoration of the president of FRY and throwing the medal down on the ground until it fell apart. The torn decree on the decoration and the broken army medal was then swept off the street of Nis by a military policeman and security official of the Command of the Third Army. Father Dusan had become known to the public when in Kraljevo, after the end of NATO intervention, he refused to receive the decoration for his killed son.

"For a whole year nobody has come to the grave of my son, and now they have found a senile old man to hand him the medal. I would have received it myself if it had been a medal for peace, but I am returning it because it was given for war. My son was in favour of peace, I wish peace and freedom to this country, and not war. Why are our children killed for nothing, why for a whole year the list of all those killed in war has not been published. The only thing we got from president of FR Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic is a book with the picture of our son as one of those killed in it, without a word of inscription", stated Vukovic, father of the killed soldier yesterday, deeply moved.

There are nowadays many people in Serbia who are embittered, and there are plenty of reasons for it. Vladimir Stojkovic, 25-year old man from Leskovac, was lucky to return from the Army alive, after the three-month bombing during which he did his Army service in Kosovo. He was arrested last month when he painted the clenched fist, symbol of Otpor (Resistance) movement on the building of Leskovac ministry of internal affairs. Stojkovic was released from prison after five days. An investigation was launched against him because as a member of illegal Otpor organisation as stated in the indictment he was "calling for forcible change of the Constitutional system". It was officially stated that since April he had committed several criminal actions by distributing propaganda material on several occasions: badges and matches with the symbol of Otpor movement, putting up posters with the same sign and messages: "I will not have war, I will not have repression, I will not have fear". Leskovac opposition, non-governmental organisations and Otpor, joined by activists from other cities, organised a protest rally because Stojkovic had been arrested. For days citizens gathered and exerted pressure on the authorities until he was released.

The number of arrests in Serbia, mostly of members of Otpor and activists of political parties, which are happening every day, cannot be precisely determined by anybody any more. According to the records of Otpor movement presented during his recent visit to Jiri Dienstbier, UN high representative for human rights, from August last year until June 20 this year, more than 600 young people were arrested. A monthly record was reached in May when 221 members of Otpor were arrested, and then in June even this figure was exceeded. Vukasin Petrovic, activist of Otpor from Belgrade, says that not a single campaign in Serbia can end without intervention of police.

Petrovic notes that it has all begun with the arrests of the activists from small towns inside Serbia, then it extended to regional centres and nowadays it is increasingly happening in Belgrade. The arrests can mostly be brought down to interrogation, and the usual reason for the arrests is "disturbing public order and peace". Numerous judicial proceedings have been instigated against Otpor activists, but a large number of cases have been set aside immediately after hearings. Petrovic says that this does not mean that they will not be reactivated when needed.

The most drastic cases of persecution against members of Otpor were registered in Leskovac and in the beginning of May in Pozarevac. After the fight with workers of Madona discotheque which is owned by Marko Milosevic, an investigation was initiated against Radojko Lukovic and Nedeljko Veljkovic for attempted murder. Although seriously injured, Lukovic did not have adequate medical treatment in prison. Members of Otpor put up posters with his disfigured face under the slogan "This is Serbia " all over the Republic. Both were recently released from prison in which they had spent almost two months. Veljkovic is indicted for attempted murder and Radojko Lukovic and Nebojsa Sokolovic for the criminal act of participation in a fight. "Collateral damage" of this case are three judges and prosecutor from Pozarevac who were relieved from duty because they did not consider there were any reason for criminal persecution. Along with ten other judges they were removed form office by the government of Serbia. Their only sin was that they believed their job was to judge pursuant the law or they expressed solidarity with their colleague Miroslav Todorovic who was presumably sacked for political reasons.

Campaign of Otpor are most frequently the immediate cause for investigation, but lately the police is taking activists into custody practically as passers-by from the street, from their homes. It is sufficient if somebody "smells" like Otpor, wears a T-shirt or has a badge with its sign, or even says something nice about this movement. According to information from Otpor, inspectors ask typical questions: how the movement is financed, who are the leaders, how it is organised, who they are in contact with. Petrovic thinks that there is no reason for additional fear of implementation of a possible future law against terrorism: "If they set out against us, we will be just an illustrative test. This law in neither against parties nor independent media - it is a law against the people".

On June 20, opposition parties established a network of solidarity of the central crisis headquarters in order to protect the people of everyday repression of the regime. "We are witnesses of continued violence of authorities and this is not just about members of Otpor and trade union activists any more. Violence is applied against institutions, media, judiciary", says Meho Omerovic, coordinator of the solidarity network. He mentions that it is almost impossible to determine precisely how many such cases there have been so far: "Fortunately there were no arrests so far in which people were seriously physically abused. During interrogation the police tries to collect data on parties. Activists, for instance, are demanded to say since when they are members of a party, whether they are paid for that, what is the ultimate aim of their political activity and similar. They have modernized their equipment and arms, but they are doing everything else in an obsolete, dilettantish way".

The intention is to cover all 25 districts with crisis headquarters which are capable of reacting to every case of violence of the regime. So far, according to Omerovic's words, about twenty such headquarters have been established. Their job is to be ready to organise whatever is necessary to protect a citizen in any place and at any moment. If he/she is ill-treated or taken to a police station, to have a lawyer immediately go there, inform the public, all organisations, local and international, and stimulate the citizens to gather in front of the police station and demand explanation or to protest. "Our only ally is the public, struggle against them is just solidarity of the citizens. It proved before that as soon as you show your teeth they back off, at least temporarily. In small places it means a lot to people because they feel that they are protected and that there is somebody to take care about them. It is also necessary to act preventively, to free people from fear", Omerovic explains. He says that the most important thing is to protect ordinary people who are often in a much worse position than party activists. Not rarely, it remains unnoticed by the media what ordinary people experience: "For example, JUL and SPS are exerting pressure on a person by threatening to sack him if he refuses to join them or shows resistance in any way". In local communities where the opposition is in power it is no major problem, because media react immediately and the whole region is informed and until now all such campaigns of solidarity have been successful. After public pressure, people were released from prison immediately, or they were not arrested at all. It is extremely difficult, however, to protect people in Eastern Serbia and in Branicevo district where the Socialists hold all the strings in their hands.

Our interlocutor assesses that the solidarity network exists since recently and it still has not been able to coordinate its actions: “What has been observed as a weakness is that certain inter-partisan animosities unfortunately reflect on this job. For the efficiency of solidarity at least a minimum budget is also needed, and so far it comes from solidarity contributions of all opposition parties. It is necessary to overcome that, because repression will continue here for a long time”. The network addressed lawyers’ chambers of Serbia, Belgrade and Voivodina seeking lawyers’ assistance. However, they were not received with enthusiasm, and they were even informed by some that they should refer to their committees for human rights.

The police, of course, has the right to summon people for interrogation, explains Dusan Ignjatovic from Yugoslav Committee of Lawyers: “However, the constitutional right of every citizen is to have council of defense in such situations, which mostly was not the case so far”. According to the data of JUKOM, several criminal proceedings have been instigated against political opponents of the regime, but most frequently people answer for offences. Among drastic examples are certainly criminal proceedings against Miroslav Filipovic, journalist of Danas and France Press, whose articles, signed in full by him in an orderly manner, were incriminated as a criminal act of espionage. Criminal proceedings have been also been instigated against writer of aphorisms Boban Miletic Bapsi. He was sentenced to five months in prison because by publicly reading his aphorisms he jeopardized the reputation of Slobodan Milosevic.

The Fund of Humanitarian Law points out to the latest example of racial discrimination. Three Romanies were forbidden to enter the Krsmanovaca swimming pool in Sabac only because they are Romanies. The owner of the pool Cedomir Vasiljevic is president of the regional committee of the Serb Radical Party and former minister in the government of Serbia. Recently, Hanibal Kovac, journalist of Radio Free Europe was also beaten up at this swimming-pool, because the security workers were informed that he has allegedly written an article about discrimination against the Romanies in this city.

Although the police is upon their heels practically 24 hours a day, members of Otpor continue with their deadly defiance to the regime. In the campaign “Who Replaces Miljan Miljanic Will not Have Problems with Slobo” they have already collected five thousand signatures. They say it is a specific public opinion poll for collection of signatures for the "real" thing – for departure of Milosevic. Nobody can do them any harm, all they can do is arrest them.

Original article