(Berlin) – Authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina should promptly investigate cases of excessive use of force by police against demonstrators on streets and in detention in Tuzla and Sarajevo between February 5 and 9, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also investigate police violence against several journalists and protect the right to peaceful assembly during protests.
Human Rights Watch interviewed victims, documenting nineteen cases of excessive use of force by police against protesters, bystanders, and journalists on the streets during demonstrations and against protesters in detention. Six cases were in Tuzla, five of them in the streets and one in detention. The other thirteen were in Sarajevo, eight in detention and five on the streets. The accounts show clear evidence of excessive use of force against protesters both on streets and in detention. Victims include two women and three children.
“It’s completely unacceptable that members of the police used excessive force on the streets and in detention against peaceful demonstrators, including women and children,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Bosnian authorities need to rein in the police and take action against the police officers responsible for this violence.”
Protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina began in Tuzla on February 5, when trade union members and their supporters demonstrated outside the cantonal government building, as they have done weekly for six months. The protests are against layoffs, unpaid salaries, and unduly high severance pay for high-ranking company officials following the privatization of several large companies in the town.
When demonstrators attempted to forcibly enter the Tuzla cantonal building, violence broke out between special police and demonstrators. Demonstrations quickly spread to other parts of the country, including Sarajevo. Several turned violent, including clashes between special police and demonstrators. In several cities, including Tuzla and Sarajevo, cantonal and municipal buildings were set on fire.
Human Rights Watch met with some victims who had been involved in peaceful protests, others who were bystanders, and also several journalists, who told Human Rights Watch that the police had attacked them while they were covering demonstrations.
“Using force against members of the media simply for covering protests is an attack on press freedom,” Gall said. “Bosnian authorities need to ensure that journalists are able to do their job without any obstructions, attacks, or retribution by law enforcement or other authorities.”
The protests came after nearly 20 years of political stagnation and dysfunctional institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and at a time of high unemployment. As a result of the demonstrations, several cantonal prime ministers resigned, including in Tuzla and Sarajevo, and citizens’ assemblies, so called “plenums,” have been established to articulate popular demands for new governments composed of non-political experts to act with the support of the plenums.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both treaties guarantee freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is obliged to protect these rights. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child which sets out special protection for children in detention. Compliance with human rights standards and the rule of law are also a precondition for closer EU ties.
The authorities have a duty to take appropriate measures to safeguard peaceful gatherings and protect them from attempts to violently disrupt them. Failing to do so is in breach of the government’s international and regional human rights obligations.
“It’s vital for Bosnia’s future for it to respect the rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” Gall said. “That means holding police officers and others who violate those rights to account.”
Aldan Siranovic, a 32-year-old organizer of a Facebook group in support of the Tuzla trade union, said he was a peaceful demonstrator who repeatedly urged others to stop attacking police on February 5 in Tuzla. He told Human Rights Watch that police officers accosted him in a Tuzla restaurant and beat him:
I ran and heard the commander tell police officers to grab the guy with the megaphone – that guy was me. Once I reached the restaurant, I heard somebody yell “Lie down!” and I felt a strong hit on my back that made me fall on the table. Eight or nine riot police started hitting me repeatedly with their sticks, they kicked me all over [the body], and one [officer] even stepped on my head as I was lying on the ground.
Several journalists told Human Rights Watch that they were victims of police abuse while covering demonstrations. On February 5, Branislav Pavicic, a cameraman who is an accredited journalist with RTV SLON, a local TV station, was filming inside the Tuzla cantonal government building with his press card visible as demonstrators forced themselves into the building:
A special police officer angrily shouted “Why are you filming?” and started pushing me backward two or three times with his shield and stick. As he pushed me backward I tripped over some stairs leading up and landed on my back. While I was lying on my back, the police officer kept thrusting at me with his shield and kept saying “No filming!” The other police officers saw what happened but didn’t intervene.
Edin Selvic, a 42-year-old accredited freelance journalist in Tuzla who is also a cameraman, said police used force against him as he tried to intervene when he saw older men manhandling a person who appeared to be a child, approximately 15 or16 years old:
I asked what looked like two civilians why they were carrying the boy away. At that point, they released the youngster, grabbed me forcefully, and dragged me to the police station. I kept telling them “I’m a journalist and have the right to document.” Once the civilian police handed me over to uniformed police at the station, they started beating me immediately all over my body. They handcuffed me to a pole in the station courtyard, put a canvas bag on my head, and kept beating me for about 25 minutes. During this time, they kept cursing me and accusing me of being the cause of everything. They broke my camera and threatened to beat me to death.
Dejan (not his real name), 28, said he had not been participating in the demonstrations:
I had nothing to do with the demonstrations. I was home visiting family. I could see what was happening from my window and when I saw that the demonstrators left, and only special police in riot gear were there, I ventured out to catch a taxi to see my family. There were 10 or 15 special police on the street corner and one officer approached me.
Once he came up to me, he started beating me immediately and two others followed and joined in the beating. They beat me with their sticks and they repeatedly kicked my body. The first police kept shouting that I was part of the protest. I kept saying I was not and had nothing to do with it. I was lying on the ground and they kept kicking my back, my spine, and wherever they could reach.
Human Rights Watch documented two cases where women were subject to police brutality during demonstrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sanela (not her real name), 23, said police tried to prevent her from filming ongoing abuse in Sarajevo on February 7:
I saw about five to seven special police in riot gear beating [what appeared to be] a young boy. I grabbed my phone and started filming it. I shouted at them to stop beating him or else I would send the footage to the media. One riot policewoman came up to me and started pushing me away and cursed me and shouted “This bitch is filming, she’s a reporter.” Then a policeman in riot gear came over and started hitting me immediately. He slapped my face very hard once and then pushed me to the wall and said, “Did you get a good shot of me, did you manage to zoom my face well, you little bitch?” He tried to grab my phone but I quickly snatched it back.
Then he really started hitting me. He beat me with his stick on my legs and in my kidney area and kicked me with the top of his boot on my shin. Then he grabbed my forehead and punched my head into the wall of the building about five or six times to the point where my eyesight was blurred […].
Human Rights Watch documented seven cases in Sarajevo in which demonstrators were beaten in prolonged detention.
Slava (not his real name), 20, who had joined the protests in Sarajevo and was arrested on February 7 at his home, said police mistreated him during his 50-hour detention:
They [police] came to my house and entered without showing any warrant. They brought me to the police station in Stari Grad and I was made to walk into a room that looked like a conference hall. I was alone. I felt a sudden hard blow on my back. It was a metal truncheon, I really screamed because it hurt so much. It was one strike and then several police, four or five, joined in. They were cursing and saying, “Fuck your mother,” and then threw me into a corner of the conference room.
I was lying on the floor and they were hitting me with their fists and they kicked my body several times wherever they could reach. This went on for five or so minutes and then one of the special police officers jumped on my ribs and my kidney area. I lost consciousness and then they threw cold water on me. I requested medical care to which the response was that “You won’t get medical care even if you drop dead here.”
Children were among those detained and beaten in police custody.
Fifteen-year old Zlatan (not his real name) told Human Rights Watch that police came to his home in Sarajevo in the middle of the night and took him away after he posted a picture of himself on Facebook with name signs from the cantonal government building in Sarajevo that he had picked up during the protests. He told a Human Rights Watch researcher that he was slapped around and forced to watch others in the same room being beaten. He spent nearly 50 hours in detention without being able to contact his parents, even though the authorities knew his age. He told Human Rights Watch, “I was so afraid as I saw how all the older boys were beaten. I wanted to go home.”
Seventeen-year old Dragan (not his real name) told Human Rights Watch that police caught him after he threw stones during the demonstrations and took him to the police station:
They caught me near Eiffels bridge and brought me to the police station […]. I told them I wouldn’t say anything without my parents present. They told me that, “Tonight we are your parents,” and they laughed. At one point, there were nine of them, and one ran toward me and kicked me with his boot in my ribs. It’s still broken. I fell to the ground and they kept beating me and kicking me.