Letter to Vice President Joe Biden

Letter to Vice President Joe Biden

hrw_logoVice President Joe Biden

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW

Washington, DC 20500

RE: Human Rights Situation in Serbia 

Dear Vice President Biden,

I am writing to you in view of your June 1 meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. The United States government can play a key role in urging Serbian authorities to address serious and ongoing human rights concerns in Serbia.

Human Rights Watch has worked extensively on human rights in Serbia since the disintegration of Former Yugoslavia and has engaged with Serbian authorities on a range of issues. We would therefore like to take the opportunity to raise with you the issues that require the Serbian government’s urgent attention.

Impunity for War Crimes

War crimes prosecutions in Serbia are hampered by a lack of political will, weak witness protection mechanisms, and the apparent protection of senior officials who are implicated in serious crimes.

Since 2003, when the special chamber for war crimes at the Serbian High Court and the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor were established, only 68 people have been convicted for war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo – almost all of them low ranking officers.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has tried and convicted the highest ranking Serbian officials but, with the exception of three mid-ranking officers from the Yugoslav National Army, Yugoslav Army and the police, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor has indicted no senior military or police officials, and no government officials, despite credible allegations against some individuals.

The most flagrant case is the organized removal of more than 900 Albanian bodies from Kosovo to Serbia in 1999 and their reburial in mass graves, including on the grounds of a police training center. Some of the people allegedly involved in this crime were named in the 2011 ICTY judgment against Serbian police chief Vlastimir Đorđević but, to date, no one has been indicted.

Another case involves the apparent execution in custody of three U.S. citizens – the brothers Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi – who were arrested in Serbia in June 1999, transferred to a police training center, and killed in July 1999. Despite promises from Prime Minister Vučić, no one has been brought to justice for this crime. We believe it is more appropriate that the Serbian prosecuting authorities remain seized of the case, and they are given full support to conduct a thorough and independent investigation.

Credible allegations by the Humanitarian Law Center in regard to war crimes committed in Kosovo levelled against Serbian Army Chief of Staff Ljubiša Diković are another concern, especially given U.S. assistance to the Serbian military. Allegations include killing civilians in the villages of Rezala and Staro Cikatovo and hiding the bodies in a mass grave in Raška.

The United States government should urge the Serbian government to take the following steps:

  • – Ensure greater efficiency in war crimes investigations and prosecutions, particularly against higher ranking military and police officials who may bear command responsibility;
  • – Ensure an effective investigation into the 1999 transfer of bodies of hundreds of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to Serbia; investigations should include the persons named in the 2011 ICTY decision against Vlastimir Đorđević, and lead to prosecution of the alleged perpetrators;
  • – Ensure an effective investigation into the apparent extrajudicial executions of the three Bytyqi brothers, including responsible commanders, and prosecute the alleged perpetrators;
  • – Ensure an effective investigation into the allegations against Serbian Army Chief of Staff Diković, and prosecute him if merited by the facts.

Treatment of Migrants and Asylum seekers

In November 2014, Human Rights Watch documented the situation of asylum seekers and migrants in Serbia, a majority of whom were Syrians and Afghans. Those interviewed reported ill-treatment at the hands of Serbian police, including assaults, threats, insults, and extortion; denial of the required special protection for unaccompanied children; and summary returns to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some families and unaccompanied children told Human Rights Watch that they had been turned away when they tried to register as asylum seekers and were forced to sleep outside during the cold winter months. For more detail, please see http://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/15/serbia-police-abusing-migrants-asylum-seekers.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, dated April 14, 2015, the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs denied allegations brought forward by Human Rights Watch, referring to them as unfounded and false. The Ministry did not provide information on whether any investigation into police ill-treatment was underway.

    The United States government should urge the Serbian government to take the following steps:

  • -Immediately investigate cases of police abuse against asylum seekers and migrants and hold those responsible to account;
  • -Issue clear guidance to police officers that they should treat asylum seekers and migrants with respect and in a manner consistent with Serbia’s human rights obligations, and should never summarily return them over the border;
  • -Issue clear guidance to police officers to provide unaccompanied children with special attention and care as required by domestic and international law;
  • -Ensure that anyone who expresses a wish to apply for asylum should have a meaningful opportunity to register their asylum claim and present their case.

Restrictions on Media Freedom

Ongoing Human Rights Watch research in Serbia shows that media workers operate in a hostile environment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 journalists in Serbia between October 2014 and March 2015 who described physical attacks and threats, including death threats, as a result of reporting on sensitive issues including war crimes and government corruption. State response to attacks and threats against journalists appears to be weak. Serbia amended its Criminal Code in 2013 to include a specific reference in Article 138(3) to endangerment of “persons discharging duties of public importance in the area of public information related to his/her duties.” While this statute has been interpreted as applicable to journalists, it is rarely applied. The Public Prosecution Office told Human Rights Watch that in 2014 only two investigations into crimes against journalists led to indictments, with one resulting in a conviction, under this statute.

Journalists also face political interference with their work. One example is the case of a renowned TV talk show, hosted by Olja Bećković, on channel B92 that was taken off the air as a result of what Bećković described as political interference involving Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. Prime Minister Vučić in January 2015 also publicly criticized the work of renowned independent media outlet Balkan Investigate Reporting Network (BIRN) following their investigation into possible corruption at the state-owned energy company Elektroprivreda Srbije. He was quoted in media as calling BIRN “liars” and that “they [BIRN] got the money from Mr. Davenport [head of the EU delegation in Belgrade, Michael Davenport] and the EU to speak against the Serbian government.”

Journalists have also experienced an increase in cyber-attacks on websites reporting on an alleged plagiarism scandal involving the police minister in Serbia as well as websites reporting critically on how authorities dealt with the humanitarian response to the 2014 Balkan floods. Journalists told Human Rights Watch that websites were down for anywhere from several hours up to several days, that materials had been deleted and that websites were subjected to repeated attacks over several days and sometimes weeks. Journalists told Human Rights Watch that they reported the attacks to the special high tech crime unit in Serbia, but at this writing, the attacks remain unresolved.

    The United States government should urge the Serbian government to take the following steps:

  • -Conduct prompt, effective, impartial, and thorough investigations into all attacks and threats against journalists and media outlets, including cybercrimes, and bring prosecutions as appropriate;
  • -Publicly and unequivocally condemn all attacks against journalists and media outlets carried out in retaliation for their work and ensure swift and thorough investigations into all such incidents;
  • -Ensure that politicians and government officials on all levels refrain from abusing civil defamation lawsuits against journalists.

Treatment of Minorities

The Roma minority face widespread discrimination in accessing social services including health care, housing, and education.

According to the 2013 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Serbia, lack of personal documents is a major problem for Roma as without necessary identification documents Roma face severe problems in accessing access health care and housing.

Roma often live in informal squalid settlements lacking basic services such as schools, health care, water and proper sewage. Roma in such informal settlements are also vulnerable to forced evictions without offers for adequate alternative accommodation. According to the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), forcible evictions are marred by due process concerns. Between 2009 and 2013, the ERRC registered 19 forced evictions in Serbia that affected more than 673 Romani families including more than 2,828 individuals.

Segregated education remains a problem, with Romani children often attending mainstream schools in separate classes and overrepresented in schools for children with special needs. In 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concerns about the placement of Romani children in special education and recommended that the government guarantee the enrolment of Romani children in mainstream school. ERRC research data from the 2012-2013 school year collected in 31 schools throughout Serbia show an overrepresentation of Roma pupils in special schools at 21 percent.

    The United States government should urge the Serbian government to take the following steps:

  • -Ensure procedural safeguards and adequate alternative accommodation in cases of forced evictions of Roma;
  • -Ensure that everyone in Serbia, regardless of ethnicity, age, or employment status can access public services, including health care and education;
  • -End segregation of Romani children in mainstream schools and ensure that all children are provided education in an inclusive setting.

We hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters. Should you require more information on any of the abovementioned issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for your attention.


Hugh Williamson
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch