Serbia: Protect Civil Society and Minorities

Government Should Unequivocally Condemn and Quell Violence

(Brussels, February 27, 2008) – Serbia’s government should act quickly to reduce the dangerously hostile climate for human rights groups, independent journalists and ethnic minority communities in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Serbian government should speak with one voice against violence as a means of protest and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is also imperative that the government protect anyone threatened with violence and bring to justice those who perpetrate it.”

In the week following Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17, there have been a series of threats and violence against Serbia’s minority communities, independent journalists and a prominent human rights defender.

Incidents of concern include:

• Attacks on shops and businesses owned by Albanians and Gorani in Kragujevac and Bor on February 19 and in Novi Sad on February 21. There are media reports that police in the town of Sombor protected some Albanian-owned businesses from attack.

• An attempt on February 17 to attack the mosque in Belgrade. The attack was foiled by a police cordon.

• During the mass protests in Belgrade on February 21, witnesses heard the crowds chanting “Kill, kill the Shiptars (a derogatory term for Albanians),” while others chanted “Knife, wire, Srebrenica,” a reference to the mass killing of Muslims by Serbs in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

• Threats against Natasa Kandic, the head of the Humanitarian Law Center, encouraged by politicians and some news media. Articles in the newspapers Kurir and Vecernje Novosti respectively referred to Kandic as a “traitor” and “the woman who does not exist.” The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is collecting signatures to lodge a criminal complaint against Kandic, accusing her of acting against the constitutional order and threatening the state’s independence and integrity.

• Threats against independent news organization B92, including an attempt during the mass protests in Belgrade on February 21 to set fire to its offices, prevented by a police cordon around the building.

On a state visit to Romania on February 21, Serbian President Boris Tadic called for calm and an immediate end to violence. But some members of the Serbian government have condoned violent protests against Kosovo’s independence. The minister for infrastructure, Velimir Ilic, described violent protests in Belgrade as “democratic.” The minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said that attacks by rioters on border posts with Kosovo reflected “government policy.”

“The fact that the police have acted to prevent some attacks is encouraging,” said Cartner. “But statements by some government officials suggesting that violence is acceptable are exacerbating the situation.”

Serbia saw a wave of attacks against minorities between late 2003 and 2005, including arson attacks on mosques. A Human Rights Watch report, “Dangerous Indifference – Violence Against Minorities in Serbia,” concluded that the Serbian government, police and courts had failed to tackle the problem seriously.

“If Serbia wants to avoid a repeat of the anti-minority violence of the past, it needs to learn the lessons from that experience,” said Cartner. “That starts with all levels of government sending a strong message to society that violence is totally unacceptable.”