During May 2000, the Serbian government intensified its efforts to silence opposition to the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. On May 17, Serbian police raided Studio B television—a prominent opposition television station in Belgrade—accusing it of being "in the service of NATO machinery." That same day the government closed Radio B2-92, Radio Index, and the Blic daily, all independent media outlets. The government has intensified efforts to prevent or break up peaceful assemblies by the opposition, sometimes using brutal means. On May 9, the police stopped an opposition rally in the town of Pozarevac by blocking opposition supporters' access to the town. On May 17-18, the police used excessive force to disperse street protests in Belgrade and beat protesters and passers-by for hours after the protests had been dispersed.
Since mid-May, the government has also begun a new wave of harassment against opposition parties and the Otpor (Resistance) movement, a loosely structured group of government opponents, most of whom are university students. The crackdown on Otpor—which is the focus of this update—has included the arrest of hundreds of students and an escalation of the government's propaganda campaign against the movement. Government officials and the government-controlled media have made serious allegations against Otpor—including explicitly accusing Otpor of "terrorism"—in what some fear is a step toward banning the group.
The harassment of the last weeks is only an escalation of the government's increasingly aggressive attempts to destroy all forms of opposition. In April 2000, Human Rights Watch reported that: The Serbian and Yugoslav governments have consistently used repressive measures—unfair trials, harassment, and violence—against opposition politicians, street demonstrators, and independent domestic critics. But the past year has seen an increase in abuses against opposition parties, the independent media, student organizations, independent trade unions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civic activists in Serbia—in short, against anyone who potentially threatens the ruling elite's grip on power.
As noted above, the government has been particularly intent upon cracking down on the Otpor (Resistance) movement. The government has made serious allegations against the group, claiming that it is a "terrorist" organization. The accusations were summed up in a May 16 statement by Ivan Markovic, the Yugoslav minister of telecommunications and a high official of the Yugoslav Left (JUL), one of the parties in the ruling coalition in Serbia. He accused Otpor of planting bombs in front of the offices of the JUL and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) in Cacak and Belgrade on the eve of the April 14 opposition rally in Belgrade, an attempt to murder a JUL member in Pozarevac on May 2, and the May 13 assassination of Bosko Perosevic, head of the government of the Vojvodina province and chief of the provincial SPS branch. In recent weeks, hundreds of Otpor activists have been arrested and interrogated, but released without charge. As of the writing of this report, no Otpor member has been indicted on charges of "terrorism," as the cases are still under investigation. The Serbian authorities and the media they control, however, have repeatedly accused Otpor of "terrorism." Most recently, two key activists were accused of involvement in the murder of a prominent politician in the town of Novi Sad, in a case which many independent observers believe is politically motivated.
While Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess the guilt or innocence of those under investigation, the apparent lack of evidence and the circumstances surrounding these cases raise serious concern that the allegations may be politically motivated and intended to harass and ultimately silence opposition to the government.
Background: the Otpor movement Otpor is a loosely structured group that opposes the current government. It numbers an estimated 20,000 activists, most of whom are university students. Since the end of the NATO war (March-June 1999), it has carried out a series of symbolic street actions aimed at ridiculing the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The movement has rapidly acquired broad sympathy among the large sections of the population. Since the beginning of 2000, the Serbian police have arrested and interrogated hundreds of Otpor activists without specifying the reasons for the arrests. In each case, those arrested were held only for a few hours before being released because there was no evidence that they had committed an offense. The frequent arrests have only increased the group's visibility, including in traditional government strongholds such as Pozarevac, the native town of President Milosevic and his wife Mirjana Markovic, located eighty kilometers southeast of Belgrade.
The May 2 "Attempted Murder" in Pozarevac On May 2, two Otpor activists—Momcilo Veljkovic and Radojko Lukovic—and their friend Nebojsa Sokolovic, all from Pozarevac, had a confrontation with associates of Marko Milosevic, son of Slobodan Milosevic and Mirjana Markovic. A fight ensued, during which several persons were injured (Veljkovic, Lukovic, Sokolovic, and Sasa Lazic, a Milosevic associate.) The government later alleged a shot had been fired at Milan Lazic (Sasa's brother), although the Otpor activists claimed the gun—which has not been presented in evidence—belonged to Sasa Lazic and no shots were fired. The three linked with Otpor were arrested that same evening on suspicion of the attempted murder of two of Milosevic's associates—Sasa and Milan Lazic—and detained for six days, before being released without charge.
On May 3, the branches of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and the Yugoslav Left (JUL) in Pozarevac, and the federal minister of telecommunications accused Veljkovic, Lukovic, and Sokolovic of having tried to kill Sasa and Milan Lazic, members of JUL and associates of Marko Milosevic who had been involved in the May 2 incident. But on May 8, the investigating judge, Bosko Papovic, determined that there was no evidence that the detainees had committed a crime, and the three were released. That evening, however, Veljkovic and Lukovic were rearrested, pursuant to a decision by a pre-trial chamber of the Pozarevac district court, and charged with attempting to murder Sasa and Milan Lazic. (Sokolovic's whereabouts were unknown as of the writing of this report.) The president of the Pozarevac district court, Judge Slobodan Coguric, presided over the work of the three-member pre-trial chamber.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the decision by the pre-trial chamber in this case may be politically motivated. As noted above, Judge Papovic found no evidence of an offense. As the district public prosecutor, Jovan Stanojevic, explained in a statement issued three days after the decision of the pre-trial chamber had been made, his request that an investigation be instituted was driven by an imperative "to establish what exactly happened; however, I thought that further detention was not necessary, or that all participants should be detained." As Stanojevic explained, the Serbian public prosecutor intervened and demanded that Stanojevic submit a request for the arrest of Veljkovic, Lukovic, and Sokolovic only. The principle of subordination to higher prosecutorial authority, which governs the work of the Office of the Serbian Public Prosecutor, left Stanojevic no choice: "... I could either break the law and reject the request [of the Serbian public prosecutor], which would automatically lead to my dismissal, or I could resign...," he wrote in the statement. On May 10, Stanojevic asked the Serbian public prosecutor to relieve him of his duty.
On the night of May 1-2, Otpor activist Dragan Milanovic (twenty-seven) was with a group of friends in a park, when Zoran Ivanovic, brothers Sasa and Milan Lazic, and Bojan Tadic—all known as acquaintances of Marko Milosevic—approached him. The Lazic brothers are also members of the Yugoslav Left (JUL), which together with the SPS and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) forms the Serbian coalition government. According to Milanovic, Ivanovic punched him in the face, and Tadic pulled out a gun warning Milanovic not to fight back. The four then took Milanovic to the nearby Cafe "Pasaz," in the center of town. Ivanovic punched Milanovic several times along the way. When they arrived at "Pasaz," he was held there some twenty minutes. He said he was threatened with death if he didn't resign from Otpor, which his captors called a "terrorist organization." At around 1 a.m. he was allowed to go, on the condition he resign as an activist in Otpor and return the next day at 6:30 p.m. He said they also told him they would force him to join the SPS.
The next morning, again by his account, Milanovic consulted Otpor activists in Belgrade and decided to go to "Pasaz," hoping he would be able to get the group to stop harassing him. However, before going to cafe "Pasaz," Milanovic and his friend Zoran Milovanovic went to the police station to ask for police protection. According to Milanovic and Milovanovic, assistant commander Grujic promised to send two patrols to the spot at 6:20 p.m. They also informed other Otpor activists in Pozarevac of the scheduled meeting.
Milanovic went to "Pasaz" alone, where he was joined by two men he said had threatened him, Zoran Ivanovic and Milan Lazic, at an outdoor table. At 6.30 p.m., a number of Otpor activists were in the vicinity of the cafe; the police, however, did not show up. Two Otpor activists—Momcilo Veljkovic and Radojko Lukovic—went up to Milan Lazic and told him to let Milanovic go. By Milanovic's account, Milan Lazic immediately called his brother Sasa on the mobile phone, and less than a minute later, Sasa Lazic showed up with a gun in his hand. He hit Veljkovic in the head with the butt of the gun. Veljkovic pulled the gun from Sasa Lazic's hand and punched back two or three times. Milanovic, who was standing by, claims that Veljkovic then threw the gun away.
In the ensuing fracas, according to Milanovic, Milan Lazic and Zoran Ivanovic attacked Otpor activist Radojko Lukovic, beating him until he lost consciousness. Lukovic's friend Nebojsa Sokolovic, who is not an Otpor activist but was walking by at that moment, yelled at Lazic and Ivanovic: "Stop beating him, you'll kill him!" They then turned and began beating Sokolovic instead. In the meantime, Momcilo Veljkovic and Dragan Milanovic, who says he did not participate in the fight, fled.
An ambulance was called to the scene, and transported Sokolovic and Lukovic to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Momcilo Veljkovic's friends took him to the hospital as well. A cut on his head he said was from being hit with the gun required ten stitches. Momcilo Veljkovic was detained by police in Pozarevac right after he left the hospital. Nebojsa Sokolovic was transported on the same evening to the prison hospital in the Central Prison in Belgrade, eighty kilometers northwest of Pozarevac. Radojko Lukovic, who suffered a minor concussion and bruises to the face, was taken to the Emergency Hospital in Belgrade. The next day, May 3, he was also transported to the Central Prison Hospital. Sasa Lazic was treated in the Pozarevac hospital and released that same night.
On May 8, the day Veljkovic and Lukovic were rearrested, the newspaper Politika—a mouthpiece of the Serbian government—published an article typical of the government diatribes against opposition activists. The article stated that Veljkovic, Lukovic, and Sokolovic, who it said had been charged with attempted murder, were "unsuccessful with women," but that "there is no data available that they are homosexuals." The newspaper also used confidential psychiatric reports to make other insulting statements about the personal lives of the three and their families. However, despite Politika's effort to publish all potentially damaging information against the three, it did not accuse them of ever having possessed or used weapons.
Although on May 3 a high JUL official, Ivan Markovic, claimed that "the Otpor fascists...shot" at Milan Lazic, the police have not reported finding a gun or any bullet casing at the scene. Although there appears to be no evidence that Veljkovic, Lukovic, or Sokolovic fired a gun, the three have been charged with attempted murder of Sasa and Milan Lazic.
The investigating judge Bosko Papovic's decision not to bring charges for lack of evidence, taken together with the testimony of Dragan Milanovic, Zoran Milovanovic, and Mile Veljkovic, raise serious concern that Veljkovic and Lukovic were rearrested and charged solely because of their political activities.
The May 2 incident was apparently not the first or last time that Otpor activists in Pozarevac have been harassed by associates of Marko Milosevic. A previous encounter in early March may have sparked the May 2 incident. One Otpor activist, twenty-year old Zoran Milovanovic, told Human Rights Watch that he had been threatened by Marko Milosevic and beaten by his associates in early March, two months before the most recent government campaign against Otpor. According to Milovanovic, on March 7, he spoke at a press conference in Belgrade, organized by Otpor to inform the public about the group's activities. When he returned to Pozarevac, he was approached by his former employer Zoran Ivanovic, and five other associates of Marko Milosevic. They forced Milovanovic into a car and drove him to the "Madona" discotheque, owned by Marko Milosevic. Milovanovic reported that during the ride Bojan Tadic leaned a gun against his spine, while another man, Milan Bajic, punched him several times in the head, accusing him of being a "fascist and traitor." In Milosevic's office, Milovanovic told Human Rights Watch, Milosevic threatened and interrogated him for about thirty minutes about the funding of Otpor and the group's activists in Pozarevac. Then Ivanovic and the others put Milovanovic in the car, where one of them hit him two or three times on his head with the butt of a gun. They left him unconscious in a street near the Cafe "Pasaz." When, two days later, Milovanovic reported the incident at the police station in Pozarevac, the chief of police suggested that the best thing he could do was to keep quiet about the case.
Since the May 2 incident, Yugoslav government officials have continued their propaganda campaign against members of the Otpor movement. On May 7, the Serbian minister of the interior, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, called Otpor a "fascist-terrorist organization," although at that time no Otpor member had been indicted for terrorism or any offense stemming from their political activities.
Otpor Activists Accused of Assassinating Bosko Perosevic The government has leveled another serious accusation against Otpor activists, alleging that they are behind the May 13 assassination of Bosko Perosevic, president of the Executive Council of Vojvodina in Novi Sad. However, the government has not to date produced evidence to support this accusation. The only government reference to evidence was a May 14 statement by Yugoslav information minister and JUL official Goran Matic that Otpor leaflets had been found in the house of fifty-year old Milivoje Gutovic, who authorities arrested on the spot on suspicion of having carried out the assassination. Matic also accused Gutovic of being a "sympathizer" of the Serbian Renewal Movement, a leading opposition party.
Both Otpor and the Serbian Renewal Movement have denied that Milivoje Gutovic was known to their organizations and condemned the assassination of Perosevic, emphasizing that he was among the few moderates in the SPS leadership. Otpor, the Serbian Renewal Movement, and other opposition parties expressed condolences to Perosevic's family and held a minute of silence at an opposition rally on May 15 in Belgrade.
As it turned out, Gutovic was from the same village as Perosevic, and the Gutovic family's home was adjacent to the compound of the Perosevic family. The father of slain Bosko Perosevic himself did not blame Otpor, and told independent media that "this tragedy seems to be a case of a fanatic who did it to get out of anonymity."
On May 15, however, the police in Novi Sad reportedly issued an arrest warrant related to the assassination of Bosko Perosevic against two Otpor activists, Stanko Lazendic (twenty-seven) and Milos Gagic (twenty-eight), although the specific charges, if any, against the two remain unclear. Their lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the police in Novi Sad had refused to give him either a copy or official confirmation of the existence of the arrest warrant, and did not specify charges to be brought against the Otpor activists.
Human Rights Watch conducted an interview with Lazendic and Gagic, who are currently in Bosnia and Herzegovina and claim to have fled there on April 14. They said the first time they heard about Milivoje Gutovic was on May 13, the day of Perosevic's murder, when they saw a TV report about the incident. Lazendic told Human Rights Watch that he and Gagic had already left Serbia a month before the assassination because of the threats that had been made against them and their families because of their activism in Otpor. In a telephone interview, Miroslava Gagic, mother of Milos Gagic, described the pressures she and her family have been under since September 1999:
We are natives of Backa Palanka, which is also the native town of Mihalj Kertes [director of the Federal Directorate of Customs and one of the closest cronies of Slobodan Milosevic]. Milos, Lazar, and I were active in the mass protest by the opposition and students in 1996 and 1997, when the government tried to [steal] the municipal elections in Serbia.
On September 8 of last year, Milos sent Kertes a fax with written questions for an interview with a student magazine. There was nothing provocative in the questions. But the next day, without a warrant, the police entered the real estate agency managed by me and my husband. They carried out inspection of our work. Of course they didn't find anything illegal. They did it only to harass and intimidate us.
At the beginning of this April, three people entered our agency and told me that my son was in an organization which was not desirable in this country. They said they were authorized to eliminate our family, but if I would give them DM 10,000 [approximately U.S.$4,650], they said they might think about sparing our lives. They added that they could sell Milos's internal organs in Moscow for a good price. At one moment, one of them hit me with a large ring of keys, and I had a bump for the following three weeks.
Miroslava Gagic said that she had discovered, through acquaintances in the Novi Sad police, that the three who made the threats belong to the special police located in the Vojvodina town of Kula, one of the few centers of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ) of the Serbian Interior Ministry. When she sought protection from the Novi Sad police, a police inspector told her to call him immediately if the threats resume. As soon as she returned home from the police station, she said, one of the men who had entered her office earlier that day called and warned her not to contact the police again. In spite of that, she called a police inspector and left a message on his voicemail. She said the police inspector never called back, and she has since stopped trying to get protection from the police.
Gagic told Human Rights Watch: I also went to Kula and learned the nicknames of the two who were in my office that day. They kept calling me every day and threatening me. I called Mihalj Kertes and told him that my son and Stanko Lazendic decided to cease their activities in Otpor. That's why they left the country to make it obvious that they were quitting their activism. Me and my husband left Novi Sad and live in a nearby village. I have refrained from going public with this, because I hoped that the intimidation would stop. But now came this arrest warrant, and there is no reason to keep silent any more.
Only a full investigation—including interviews with the alleged perpetrator—by an independent and unbiased body can lead to a determination of the facts surrounding and responsibility for the murder of Bosko Perosevic. The Serbian government's claim that the Otpor movement was behind the assassination, however, has not been supported by the available information on the case.
Conclusion Following the May 16 claim by the Yugoslav minister of telecommunications, Ivan Markovic, that Otpor had committed four terrorist acts in April and May, the police began detaining hundreds of Otpor activists throughout Serbia. Arrests have been carried out in an indiscriminate manner, in all parts of Serbia, and appear to have been based solely on the fact that the arrested are Otpor activists.
The context in which these allegations were made—the threats of violence against Otpor activists and their families, and the ceaseless barrage of defamatory government propaganda against them—raises serious concerns that the arrests are a form of harassment of the political opposition intended to punish them for their peaceful expression and association, as well as a veiled warning to others who might consider anti-government activities. As of this writing, all who had been arrested in the May crackdown—except Veljkovic and Lukovic—had been released and none has been charged with any offense, although the pattern of short-term arrests continues. The campaign against Otpor, along with the unwillingness of the authorities to provide information to the attorney in Novi Sad and the intervention of the Serbian public prosecutor in the Pozarevac case, raise doubts that investigation and possible trial against Otpor activists can be carried out in a fair and unbiased way.