The Serbian police used unnecessary and excessive force against peaceful anti-government demonstrators in Belgrade on September 29, Human Rights Watch charged, and warned that the violence may mark a new government response to Serbia's ongoing street protests.

"This is not an issue of ethnicity or secession, as it was in Kosovo," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "Milosevic and his inner circle are violating human rights in the Serbian capital to protect their own power."

The Serbian government has used unnecessary force against street protests many times in the past, but yesterday was the first violence against this autumn's demonstrations organized by the Alliance for Change, a coalition of political parties united in opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Witnesses saw the police beat dozens of peaceful protesters, including young people and the elderly. Policemen wielded truncheons against people who were on the ground in a prone position, and clearly not offering any resistance. Others were beaten long after the protesters had dispersed. Between forty-five and sixty individuals sought medical care as a result of the beatings, according to the Alliance for Change.

Journalists were also attacked, even after they had identified themselves as press. A correspondent for the independent Beta news agency and cameramen from CNN and SKY news were beaten, and the latter two had their cameras destroyed, according to the independent Radio Index.

Yesterday's demonstration was one in a series of anti-government protests organized since September 21. An estimated 20,000 people intended to march from Belgrade's central Terazije Square to Dedinje Hill, an elite neighborhood where Milosevic lives. Around 9:00 p.m., the protesters were met on the corner of Kneza Milosa and Nemanjina Streets by approximately two hundred policemen in full riot gear. A police commander requested that the protestors disperse since "movement through Kneza Milosa Street is not allowed." Alliance for Change leaders also asked the demonstrators to walk along another street in order to avoid violence, but most remained.

During the forty-five minute stand-off between the police and demonstrators, three water cannons and three armored personnel carriers with automatic guns aimed at the protesters were placed behind the police cordon. Around 9:45 p.m., another cordon of police approached the demonstrators from Nemanjina St. and began to forcibly disperse and beat the crowd.

A well known political leader, Pavic Obradovic, vice president of the political party Social Democracy, was beaten, and another vice president from the party, Slobodan Orlic, was arrested after the police intervention at the entrance to the party's office, two kilometers away. A member of the party's Executive Board, Jelena Milenkovic, was beaten by a policeman during Orlic's arrest.

The police issued statement yesterday that a group of "hooligans from the so-called Alliance for Change attacked the policemen who were performing their regular duties in keeping public order and peace... The hooligans used bricks, stones, and flag poles, injuring five policemen, three of them seriously."

According to Serbia's Law on Citizens' Gatherings, marches must be announced to the police five days in advance of the planned event (article 6, paragraph 2). The police are then obliged to issue a response to the request; failure to do so is considered approval for the march. Vladan Batic, coordinator of the Alliance for Change, told Human Rights Watch that the Alliance had informed the Belgrade police ahead of the deadline for yesterday's march, but that the police had failed to respond.

There have been other restrictions on the opposition parties' activities in September. The man in charge of the audio equipment for the Alliance for Change demonstrations, Nikola Djurickovic, was sentenced to seven days in prison on September 27 because he had not reported his private change of address to the police (from Berane, Montenegro, to Belgrade). According to media reports, he was released by an appeals court on September 30. On September 28, a member of the Democratic Party security staff, Aleksandar Stosic, was beaten by unknown individuals he believed to be the police as he placed posters on a wall in central Belgrade.

The Serbian government has used violence against demonstrators in previous years. The police beat hundreds of people taking part in Serbia's last round of large-scale anti-government protests in 1996-1997 (see Human Rights Watch report: "Discouraging Democracy: Elections and Human Rights in Serbia," September 1997).