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The recent upsurge of incidents against minorities in Serbia began in late 2003. During 2004, most of the incidents occurred in Vojvodina, an autonomous province in Serbia. Many of the cases involved assaults on ethnic and religious minorities in the province.4   In 2005, offenses against minorities decreased in Vojvodina, but intensified in other parts of Serbia, often taking the form of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim graffiti, as well as physical assaults on Roma.5  

Vojvodina is located in Serbia’s north and makes up a quarter of Serbian territory. Then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic drastically curtailed provincial autonomy when he consolidated power in the late 1980s. Even after the fall of Milosevic from power in October 2000, local self-governance in various parts of Serbia has remained weak.  The constitution of Serbia from 1990 is still in force, including the provisions granting limited autonomy to Vojvodina.

While the province has a parliament and a cabinet (the executive council of the parliament), their competences are mostly ceremonial and administrative.6 Political, social and economic developments in the province depend mainly on the decisions by the government in Belgrade.

During the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarians and Croats left Vojvodina, many under pressure from Serb extremists. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has issued an indictment for crimes against humanity and war crimes concerning persecutions and forced transfer of ethnic Croats in parts of Vojvodina, in 1992.7

The number of ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina has fallen from 340,000 in 1991 to 290,000 in 2002.8 The number of Croats decreased from 72,394 to 56,546, or, if one includes the so-called Bunjevci community, from 93,615 to 76,312.9 Other major minority groups in the province include Slovaks (56,000), Romanians (30,000), Roma (29,000), and Ruthenians (15,600).10 In 2002, some 1,320,000 ethnic Serbs lived in the province, in the overall population of 2,032,000.11 

Structure of the Police, Prosecuting and Judicial Authorities


The police in Serbia, including Vojvodina, are centralized. The minister of interior has the power to appoint local police commanders in the municipalities. Participation of the ethnic minorities in the police in Serbia is currently far below the percentage of the minorities in the overall population in the province. Hungarians made up only 1.3 percent of police employees in 2004 despite comprising 3.9 percent of the overall population. For other major ethnic groups the figures during the same period were: Bosniacs (Muslims) – 1.12 percent of police employees compared to 1.8 percent of the overall population; Croats 0.32 compared to 0.94 percent of the overall population; and Roma 0.1 percent compared to 1.44 percent of the overall population.12

When an offense is committed, the police conduct a preliminary investigation in order to gather the initial information about the case. On the basis of the information, the police evaluate the legal nature of the offense, sometimes after consulting a municipal or district prosecutor.13 Depending upon the evaluation, the police may submit misdemeanor charges to a misdemeanor judge, or criminal charges to a criminal prosecutor.

Criminal Courts and Public Prosecutors

Serbia is divided into districts. Districts are, in turn, divided into municipalities. Most districts and municipalities have their own criminal courts and prosecutors. District and municipal-level judges and prosecutors are elected by the Serbian parliament in the capital Belgrade.14 District courts, as a general rule, have jurisdiction over crimes punishable with prison sentences exceeding ten years, while municipal courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate lesser offenses.15 Serbian legislation also lists specific crimes which, although not punishable with more than ten years of imprisonment, are within the competence of district courts. Incitement to ethnic, racial and religious hatred is one of these crimes.16 

There are seven districts in Vojvodina, all but one of which contains a district court and district prosecutor.17 Most of the 45 municipalities in Vojvodina either have their own municipal courts or an outpost of the municipal court from a larger neighboring municipality.18 

Misdemeanor Judges

Misdemeanors are dealt with outside the criminal justice system by misdemeanor judges, who are appointed by the Serbian executive branch.19 Despite their formal title, they are not members of judiciary. Administrative agencies, inspectorates, and other bodies “empowered with public authority” are in charge of initiating misdemeanor proceedings.20 With respect to the incidents addressed in this report, proceedings are initiated by municipal offices of the police.

Misdemeanor judges operate in most municipalities in Serbia.21 Appeals of their decisions go to one of the eleven misdemeanor chambers (vece za prekrsaje) that exist throughout Serbia.22 The misdemeanor chamber in Novi Sad, for example, hears appeals of the decisions by misdemeanor judges in Vojvodina.23 

Prosecuting Offenses with an Ethnic or Religious Motivation

There are three ways in which violence against ethnic and religious minorities can be prosecuted under Serbian law. The first option is to charge a violation of article 134, which prohibits incitement to ethnic, racial and religious hatred. The second is to charge using standard public order offenses under the Serbian criminal code, such as violent behavior or participation in group violence. The third option is to treat the offense as a misdemeanor, an administrative charge dealt with outside the criminal courts.

Article 134

Article 134 of the Basic Penal Code prohibits incitement to ethnic (“national,” under the terms of the law), racial, and religious hatred. The provision encompasses not only symbolic acts, such as desecration of cemeteries and uttering hate slogans, but also violent acts such as assaults and destruction of private and communal property.24

For an offense under article 134 to be committed, it is not necessary that ethnic, racial, and religious hatred actually resulted from the act in question. It is sufficient that the underlying act objectively could have produced such a consequence.25 Criminal responsibility attaches when the perpetrator intended to incite hatred against the victim group, or knew that hatred was a likely result and was reckless as to whether it occurred (“advertent recklessness”).26

General Public Order Offenses

Where criminal prosecutions are pursued for alleged ethnically motivated violence, the defendants are generally charged with ordinary criminal offenses, such as violent behavior (article 220 of the Serbian Penal Code), participation in a group that commits violent acts (article 230), or damaging someone else’s belongings (article 176). Article 220 criminalizes insulting, violent, impudent and ruthless behavior of the transgressor whose earlier life suggests propensity to such behavior.27 Article 230 differs from article 220 in that it pertains to incidents resulting in more serious consequences – loss of life, infliction of serious bodily injury, or property damage.28 Mere presence in the group that carries out the violence is punishable under article 230, in contrast to article 220, where the prosecutor must prove that the accused personally committed a prohibited act.29  Violation of article 230(1), like that of article 220, results in prison sentences from three months to five years. An identical maximum sentence is prescribed for the crime of damaging someone else’s belonging, in article 176. The sentences contrast with the eight-year maximum prescribed for the most common forms of infringement upon article 134.

Absence of “Hate Crime” Legislation

International human rights law permits, but does not require, states to adopt so-called hate crime legislation. Typically, such laws permit higher sentences for criminal acts that are aggravated by racial, ethnic, religious or other hatred. Human Rights Watch supports the enactment of such laws so long as they are appropriately enforced to protect the rights of all ethnic, racial and other groups.30

Serbian criminal law does not contain provisions that would allow for the imposition of greater sentences for ethnically aggravated forms of offenses. Some courts have applied other provisions in the Basic Penal Code as an ad hoc form of hate crime legislation. In particular, in several cases courts have sought to charge article 134,31 which prohibits incitement to racial hatred, and article 154, which outlaws violations of “basic human rights” on the basis of racial, national or ethnic grounds.32 But neither article can properly be applied to hate crimes, and efforts to do so violate the principle of legality. Moreover, the use of articles 134 and 154 by some courts to cover offenses which other courts deal with through regular public order charges creates an inconsistent application of the law, which is particularly undesirable in the criminal justice system.


Public order offenses can also be dealt with through misdemeanor proceedings, under articles 6 and 12 of the Public Order and Peace Act. As noted above, such proceedings are undertaken by misdemeanor judges operating separately from the criminal courts. Both article 6 and article 12 proscribe the disruption of public order and peace, as well as conduct jeopardizing the safety of the citizens. While article 6 of the Public Order and Peace Act encompasses the use of force and threats with the use of force, 33 article 12 focuses on “indecent, impudent, and ruthless behavior” falling short of violence.34

Initiating a Prosecution

There are four bodies authorized under the law to refer a case for prosecution as either a misdemeanor or a criminal offense: the police, misdemeanor judges, the office of the public prosecutor, and judges in the criminal courts.

The police can refer a case either to a public prosecutor or misdemeanor judge, depending on their assessment of the gravity of the offense. If the police opt for misdemeanor charges, it is open to a misdemeanor judge to determine that the act constitutes a criminal offense rather than a misdemeanor. In that case, the misdemeanor judge can declare a lack of jurisdiction and refer the case to the competent public prosecutor.35 The misdemeanor judge can also complete the misdemeanor proceedings and report the case to the competent criminal prosecutor. This is not considered double jeopardy (prosecution for the same offense more than once) because misdemeanor proceedings are administrative rather than judicial, and because a finding of guilt does not constitute conviction on a criminal charge.36 

With respect to the crimes covered by this report, the municipal prosecutor is in charge of prosecuting offenses of “violent behavior” (article 220 of the Serbian Penal Code), “participation in the group that commits violent acts” (article 230), and damaging someone else’s belonging (article 176). Given the more serious nature of “incitement to racial hatred” (article 134 of the Basic Penal Code), a more superior, district prosecutor, is in charge of pursuing that crime.37 When the case comes to the prosecutor – usually from the police, in practice – the prosecutor submits to the investigating judge a request to open an investigation. Upon completion of the investigation, the prosecutor decides which charges to bring against the suspect. A municipal prosecutor might determine that the case at issue actually rises to incitement to racial hatred, in which case he or she can notify the competent district prosecutor.38 Conversely, a district prosecutor might refer the case to a municipal prosecutor, if he or she were to determine that there were no elements of incitement in the acts of the accused.

It is also important to note that the prosecutor is not obliged to stand by the legal qualification of the offense in the indictment until the end of the trial. If, for example, a district prosecutor reaches the conclusion that evidence is unlikely to support the charge of incitement, he or she can amend the indictment before the conclusion of the trial to one of participation in a violent group, or some other crime.39 Prosecutors are therefore free to pursue article 134 charges where the evidence strongly suggests presence of incitement, without taking the risk that the case will collapse if the intention or advertent recklessness required for the incitement offense cannot be established.

[4] Throughout this report, the use of “ethnic minorities” is intended to encompass national minorities, such as the Hungarian and Croat communities in Serbia.

[5] There have been further incidents after the conclusion of the research for this report, with the Roma as the most frequent targets. The main Roma human rights organization in Serbia, Minority Rights Center, reported at the beginning of September 2005, that there were four arson attacks on Roma settlements in Belgrade in the previous two months. From January to September 2005, the organization investigated 121 cases of unlawful treatment by the police, violence by private persons, and discrimination. Minority Rights Center, “Escalation of violence toward Roma” (press release), September 1, 2005.

[6] According to the Serbian Constitution, an autonomous province has limited competences in the field of “economic, scientific, technological, demographic, regional and social development; development of agriculture and rural areas; […] culture; education; official use of the language and alphabet of the national minority; public information; health and social welfare; child welfare; protection and advancement of environment; urban and country planning; and in other areas established by law.” Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, Serbian government website, (retrieved January 30, 2005), article 109.

[7] See International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Vojislav Seselj, case no. IT, Indictment of January 15, 2003, available at              

[8] B.D.S., “Putujem u Vasington da kazem kako zivimo!” (“I Am Going to Washington to Recount How We Live Here!”), Dnevnik (Novi Sad), July 7, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 31, 2005) (statement by Zsoltan Bunik, Vice-president of the Party of Vojvodina Hungarians). Results of the 2002 census are available on the website of the Statistics Bureau of Serbia and Montenegro, at

[9] Dr. Drazen Zivic, “Depopulacija Hrvata u Vojvodini (1953.-2002.)” (“Depopulation of Croats in Vojvodina”) [online], (retrieved January 30, 2005) (quoting official census data for 1991 and 2002). The question of ethnic identity of Bunjevci has been subject to considerable dispute between Croatia and Serbia, the former claiming that Bunjevci belong to Croat ethnic group, and the latter contesting the proposition.

[10] “Facts about Serbia: National Minorities,” Serbian government website, (retrieved July 30, 2005).

[11] Website of the Statistics Bureau of Serbia and Montenegro, at

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Vladimir Djuric, representative of the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights in the Council of Ministers of Serbia and Montenegro, Belgrade, June 1, 2005.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Zoran Pavlovic, Novi Sad District Public Prosecutor, January 25, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Ratko Galecic,  Sremska Mitrovica District Public Prosecutor, January 24, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Goran Rodic, President of Temerin Municipal Court, January 26, 2005.

[14] Law on Judges, Sluzbeni glasnik RS (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 63/2001, 42/2002, 60/2002, 17/2003, 25/2003, 27/2003, 35/2004, and 44/2004, article 46; Law on Public Prosecutor, Sluzbeni glasnik RS , No. 63/2001, 42/2002,  39/2003, and 44/2004, article 56.

[15] Law on the System of Courts, Sluzbeni glasnik RS (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 63/2001, articles 21 and 22.

[16] Law on the System of Courts, Sluzbeni glasnik RS (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 63/2001, article 22.

[17] The seven districts in Vojvodina are: Backa South (with the seat in Novi Sad), Backa North (Subotica), Backa West (Sombor), South Banat (Pancevo), North Banat (Kikinda), Banat Central (Zrenjanin), and Sremski (Sremska Mitrovica). See Serbian Government website, at (retrieved January 31, 2005). Territorial jurisdiction over crimes that occur in North Banat district is divided between the district courts in Zrenjanin and Subotica. See Law on Courts’ and Public Prosecutors’ Seats and Areas of Competence, Sluzbeni glasnik RS (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 63/2001, article 5.

[18] Ibid, article 2.

[19] Bratislava Petrovic ed., Misdemeanors Act [of Republic of Serbia], consolidated text (Belgrade, 1996), arts. 84a and 98.

[20] Ibid, article 176.

[21] Ibid, article 84a.

[22] Ibid, article 84a.

[23] Ibid, article 85.

[24] Article 134 stipulates:

(1) Whoever incites to or inflames national, racial or religious hatred, discord or intolerance among peoples and national minorities living in [Serbia and Montenegro], shall be punished by one to five years' imprisonment.

(2) In case the above act has been committed through coercion or ill-treatment, by jeopardizing someone's safety, by exposing to ridicule certain national, ethnic or religious symbols, by inflicting damage to other people's belongings, as well as desecration of monuments, memorial complexes or tombstones, the perpetrator shall be punished by 1 to 8 years' imprisonment.

(3) If the perpetrator commits the offense from paragraphs 1 and 2 of this article by abuse of office or powers, or if the offense resulted in riots, violence or other grave consequences for the common living of the peoples or national minorities residing in [Serbia and Montenegro], the perpetrator shall be sentenced to imprisonment ranging from one to eight years for offenses under paragraph 1, and from one to ten years for the offense under paragraph 2. Penal Code of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [now “Basic Penal Code”], consolidated version (Belgrade, 2001), article 134.

The Basic Penal Code is one of the two pieces of Serbian legislation defining criminal offenses and prescribing the penalties. The other legislative act is Penal Code of the Republic of Serbia.

[25] Judgment of the Supreme Court of Serbia, Kž. I. 518/85, September 10, 1985. See also Dr. Zoran Stojanovic & Dr Obrad Kesic, Krivicno pravo – posebni deo (Criminal Law – Specific Crimes) (Belgrade, 2002), p. 34.

[26] Dr. Zoran Stojanovic & Dr Obrad Kesic, Krivicno pravo – posebni deo (Criminal Law – Specific Crimes) (Belgrade, 2002), p. 34. If the perpetrator recklessly held that no hatred would result from his act (“inadvertent recklessness”), or if he was even unaware that hatred might result, he is not criminally responsible under article 134.

[27]  Article 220 provides:

Whoever jeopardizes serenity of the citizens or disrupts public order and peace, by rude insults or ill-treatment, use of violence, provoking brawl, or by impudent and ruthless behavior, and his earlier life suggests propensity to such behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment ranging from three months to three years.

 If the act from paragraph 1 is committed in a group, or during the commission of the offense a person suffered light bodily injury, or was exposed to grave humiliation, the perpetrator shall be punished by imprisonment ranging from six months to five years.

Penal Code of the Republic of Serbia, consolidated version (Belgrade, 2002), article 220.

[28] Article 230 stipulates, in part:

Whoever participates in a group which through a common activity of its members deprives a person of his life, or inflicts upon him a serious physical injury, causes arson, damages property to a significant extent, or performs other acts of grave violence, or which attempts to carry out such acts, shall be punished for the participation by imprisonment ranging from three months to five years.

Penal Code of the Republic of Serbia, article 230.

[29] In contrast, serious offenses against the person carried out by a lone person who is not part of any group require that the prosecution establish that the person carried out the prohibited act. During the course of this research, Human Rights Watch encountered only one case of violence against minorities involving a lone perpetrator.

[30] The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), article 4(a), states that state parties “[s]hall declare an offense punishable by law…all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin….” Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) instructs states to prohibit “[a]ny advocacy….that constitutes incitement to…violence.” Thus though the treaty texts of CERD and the ICCPR make clear that racial and ethnic based violence must be punished by states, they are vague on the issue of what form the punishment for bias-motivated violence should take. In particular, the issue of whether states must uniquely and separately criminalize violent acts based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other animus or enhance penalties for such acts is left open by the text of the treaties. The U.N. Human Rights Commission  passed a resolution on April 25, 2002, calling for states to “consider including in their legislation racist and xenophobic motivations as an aggravating factor for purposes of sentencing” (E/CN.4/2002/L.12 (2002)), but the resolution did not call for the separate and unique criminalization of bias motivated crimes.

[31] There has been at least one sentence by a district court in Serbia applying article 134 as a “hate crime” provision. In May 2001, the district court in Nis invoked this article to sentence two “skinhead” youths to suspended 6-month sentences for beating a Roma minor because of his ethnicity. District Court in Nis, Judgment no. K-136/2000, May 16, 2001. Several prosecutors in Vojvodina, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, also interpreted article 134 as a hate crime provision, even though they were reluctant to use it in practice because of the difficulty of proving racial motive behind the perpetrator’s act.

[32] Article 154 stipulates, among other: (1) Whoever violates basic human rights and freedoms recognized by the international community, on the basis of the difference in race, color skin, nationality, or ethnic origin, shall be punished by imprisonment ranging from six months to five years. Basic Penal Code, article 154.

A court in central Serbian town of Aleksandrovac applied Article 154 in April 2005 to punish a “skinhead” who severely beat a Romani man. Municipal court in Aleksandrovac, Judgment no. K-3/05, April 4, 2005. However, a fair-minded reading of Article 154 does not justify the conclusion that it pertains to hate crimes. The title of the article, “Racial discrimination and other types of discrimination,” explicitly characterizes this provision as prohibiting discrimination – a concept distinct from committing criminal offense with a racist motivation (hate crime). The reference in Article 154 to “violations of human rights and freedoms” exposes the main purpose of the provision as that of targeting public officials who are in a position to decide about someone else’s rights and freedoms by exercising power in administrative and civil matters. Hate crimes, in contrast, are as a rule committed by individuals who, acting in private capacity, commit a criminal offense against another person.

[33] Article 6 of the Public Order and Peace Act provides:

(1) Whoever disrupts public order and peace, or jeopardizes the safety of the citizens, by quarrelling or shouting, shall be punished by a fine up to 500 dinars, or by prison sentence not exceeding 20 days.

 (2)  Whoever jeopardizes security of another person by threats against his life or body, or life and body of a person close to him, shall be punished by a fine up to 700 dinars, or by prison sentence not exceeding 30 days.

(3)  Whoever insults or abuses another person, by using violence, provoking brawl or participating therein, and thereby jeopardizes the serenity of the citizens or disrupts public order and peace, shall be punished by a fine up to 1,000 dinars, or by prison sentence not exceeding 60 days.

(4)  When the misdemeanor from paragraphs 1 to 3 is committed in a group, the punishment shall be a prison sentence not exceeding 60 days.

Public Order and Peace Act, Sluzbeni glasnik RS (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 51/1992, 53/1993, 67/1993, 48/1994), article 6.

[34] Article 12 stipulates, in paragraph 1:

Whoever jeopardizes safety of the citizens, or disrupts public order and peace, by … indecent, impudent, and ruthless behaviour, shall be punished by a fine up to 700 dinars, or by prison sentence not exceeding 30 days.

Public Order and Peace Act, article 12 (1).

[35] Bratislava Petrovic ed., Misdemeanors Act [of Republic of Serbia], consolidated text (Belgrade, 1996), art. 124.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Sead Spahovic, Public Defender of the Republic of Serbia, Belgrade, January 16, 2005.

[37] Law on the System of Courts, Sluzbeni glasnik RS, No. 63/2001, as amended in 42/2002 and 27/2003, article 22 (2).

[38] The municipal prosecutor in Kikinda, for example, told Human Rights Watch that, following the careful consideration of the file received from the investigating judge and pertaining to the May 29/30, 2004 beating of Hungarian youths in Novi Knezevac, she would decide whether to: (a) issue indictment for violent behavior (article 220 of the Serbian Penal Code) or, (b) in consultancy with the competent District Prosecutor, defer him the case for prosecution under article 134 of the Basic Penal Code. Human Rights Watch interview with Svetlana Vlajkov, Deputy Municipal Public Prosecutor in Kikinda, Kikinda, December 22, 2004.

[39] See Zakonik o krivicnom postupku, sa izmenama i dopunama (Criminal Procedure Act, with Amendments) [2001], (Sluzbeni list, Belgrade, 2002), art. 341.

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