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(New York) - Serbia's government should quickly take visible steps to end a spate of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent November 16, 2009, to President Boris Tadic. Human Rights Watch called on the government to fully protect the rights of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

"Homophobic violence in recent months has threatened LGBT people's access to basic freedoms," said Boris O. Dittrich, advocacy director in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch. "Leading politicians should show the courage to condemn hatred and prevent abuse."

The government cancelled a gay pride parade that had been scheduled for September 20, 2009, in Belgrade, saying it could not ensure the participants' safety after graffiti and media statements by opponents of the march threatened parade participants with violence.

In February, the Director of the Sava Center, the conference, culture and business center in Belgrade, cancelled a news conference that had been scheduled there by the Gay Straight Alliance. The center's director said that its use by an organization that promotes and advocates gay rights was inappropriate. When the organization held the news conference in Kragujevac in March, youth threw stones at the windows and doors of the building where it was held, shouting, "Faggots, we will kill you."

In the letter, Human Rights Watch urged President Tadic to denounce violence and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Human Rights Watch called on the government to work with Serbian LGBT rights defenders to ensure that a pride parade can be held in 2010 without fear of violent disruption.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure prompt, effective investigations of all threats or allegations of violence against LGBT people. Human Rights Watch urged the government to train prosecutors, police, and judges to respond effectively to violence against LGBT people, drawing on the expertise of Serbian human rights groups working on LGBT issues.

Human Rights Watch also urged the government to institute training in schools about equality and the need to prevent discrimination, and to ensure that children can receive an education in a safe environment, free from bullying or discrimination. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to provide full funding and support for the new position of national commissioner for the protection of equality created by an omnibus anti-discrimination bill passed this year, and to make certain that the commissioner's mandate includes LGBT issues.

"Freedoms on paper are worthless if the state cannot or will not protect people who are threatened when they try to exercise them," Dittrich said.  "Hatred and prejudice have kept too many Serbs from full participation in society for too long."

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