Serbian authorities loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic are increasingly using violence against their opponents.
In the past six weeks, police have beaten opposition activists and members of Otpor (Resistance), an anti-government group mostly comprised of university students. Police have also refused to investigate attacks on opposition activists by plainclothes thugs believed to be working for the Serbian government.
Previously, police harassment of students and opposition activists was limited mostly to detention and interrogation.
"The use of force brings the harassment of government critics in Serbia to a new and very dangerous level," said Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Since June, opposition activists face not only detention but also physical violence."
In May and June, the police detained and interrogated five hundred Otpor activists. This summer's beatings took place in police stations or in city streets, where government critics were placing anti-governments posters or simply wearing T-shirts with symbols of Otpor—a clenched fist—or opposition parties.
Since early spring 2000, the Serbian government has routinely referred to Otpor as a "fascist" and "terrorist" organization. The Federal Justice Ministry refused on June 9 to register the group into the registry of associations, public and political organizations.
The uncorroborated allegations of terrorism against Otpor are widely seen as an attempt by the government to suppress the increasingly popular group. Otpor has repeatedly demanded free elections in Serbia and carried out street actions ridiculing the government's policies. Numerous university professors, human rights activists, artists, church representatives, and members of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts have publicly supported the group or become its members.
Based on interviews with some of the beaten Otpor members and reports by Serbian independent media and non-governmental organizations, Human Rights Watch has .compiled a list of recent cases in which the Serbian government used violence or failed to investigate violence against those who were peacefully expressing their discontent with the state:
On June 9, four members of the Democratic Party (DS) in Zajecar were beaten at the local police station, where they were detained after putting up DS posters in town;
On June 10, in Barajevo, a group of DS activists were distributing brochures and leaflets in the streets when they were attacked by a group of individuals coming out of the office of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). DS members identified one attacker by name and reported the case to the police. The police refused to act upon the charge and blamed DS for "insulting the president" in the leaflet;
On June 25, a policeman in the police station in Leskovac beat Bratislav Stankovic, while shouting that he had "had enough of you democrats." Stankovic was arrested while riding a bicycle with an Otpor badge on his shirt;
On July 7, in Lapovo, the police beat student Nikola Lukic (19) in the police station. Lukic told the press that he was beaten from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. He was detained after the police searched his car and found an Otpor T-shirt and three badges with a clenched fist, the group's symbol;
On the same day, Otpor issued a press release stating that during a three-hour interrogation, a member of the State Security Service in Subotica physically attacked Otpor activist Marinko Varnjas, an asthmatic. Upon release, Varnjas had an asthma attack and had to seek medical attention;
On July 9, in Belgrade, a police inspector kicked Otpor member Tanja Zivanovic (18), during an interrogation of sixteen Otpor activists in the police station. The group was arrested while playing a soccer game and demanding resignation of the Yugoslav soccer team coach, as a metaphor for demanding the resignation of president Slobodan Milosevic;
On July 13, in Zemun, an inspector in the police station slapped Otpor activist Aleksandar Spasic when he refused to answer one of his questions during a four-hour long interrogation. Spasic had been arrested after a search of his house, where police seized Otpor material;
On July 15, a group of unidentified men in Sabac beat invalids Marko Vukovic and Marin Barjaktarevic, members of DS, inflicting serious injuries. Vukovic and Barjaktarevic were walking with their crutches and wearing T-shirts with the DS symbol when they were spotted by a group who were putting up SPS posters. The men used the crutches to beat the invalids, until the crutches broke. Vukovic's ribs were fractured as a consequence, and Barjaktarevic had internal injuries. The men claim that a police patrol quickly appeared but refused to pursue the attackers.
On July 17, in Kikinda, a policeman hit Otpor activists Srdjan Glisic twice on the head, while detaining him and his colleague Dijana Suboticki. The arrest took place while Glisic and Suboticki were putting up posters with the message: "Resistance, because I love Serbia;"
On July 18, in Sabac, police beat youth Otpor activist S.M., allegedly because he laughed while the police were putting him into a police car. Witnesses told the media that the policeman who beat S.M. also tried to force an Otpor poster into S.M.'s mouth.