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The State Response

International human rights law sets out the fundamental obligations by which governments must protect the rights of all persons under their authority, including members of ethnic, national or religious minorities. It is a duty of every government to undertake effective measures to prevent ethnic and religious violence and to vigorously investigate and prosecute perpetrators. Authorities should, in addition, publicly and unequivocally condemn the violence, in order to reiterate that the violence is unacceptable and express support to the minorities at risk. The authorities in Serbia have often failed to fulfill these obligations.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro succeeded to in 2001, each state undertakes to respect and to ensure to all persons their fundamental rights without distinction of any kind, including race, language, religion, national origin, or other status.174 Each state must take the necessary steps to adopt legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognized in the Covenant.175 According to the Human Rights Committee, the international body empowered to monitor compliance with the ICCPR, states may be in violation of the Covenant by “permitting or failing to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by such acts [violating Covenant rights] by private persons or entities.”176

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Serbia and Montenegro succeeded to in 2001, obliges states to guarantee everyone, “without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin… security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual, group or institution.”177 

Police Dismissal of Ethnic Motivation Behind Violence

Government officials, and the police in particular, have often denied ethnic motivation even before any meaningful investigation into the incidents was completed. Such an approach suggests that the authorities do not recognize the larger consequences of these offenses, or their impact on vulnerable minorities.

The March 22, 2005 stabbing of a young Romani man by a group of Serbs in the town of Vrsac, eastern Vojvodina, provides a recent example. The head of the local police issued a statement on the same day, claiming that the motive of the assault was not ethnic hostility. However, the testimony of the victim, twenty-four year old S.S., suggests that he was attacked because of his ethnicity. S.S. recounted the incident to Human Rights Watch:

I was standing in the Romani part of town, mahala, some time around 2.30 in the afternoon, with two friends, listening music from the car. We noticed a group of five young people, who were standing in front of a café. I didn’t know them, but they obviously knew me, because they called me by name. They said “Come here, S.” One of my friends and I started walking toward them, to see what they wanted. I was not looking for trouble, because I’ve always gotten along with everybody and never violated the law. When we got close, they cursed my “Gypsy mother” and pulled out knives to attack us. We stopped and headed back toward the car, but they went after us. There were some elderly women standing there, and these men insulted them, cursed their “Gypsy mothers” and stuff. Our friend who had stayed beside the car took some sticks from the car and passed it to me and my friend to defend ourselves. But one of the attackers stabbed me in my chest, right below my left shoulder. I fainted a little bit later.178 

The police arrived soon after the beginning of the assault and arrested the attackers. The police identified the man who stabbed S.S. as nineteen year old Ilija Marinkovic. Despite the racial epithets and abuse directed at the Roma by the attackers, the head of the Vrsac police told the media that ethnic bigotry had not been a motive, and that the police would bring criminal charges against Marinkovic and others for participation in fight.179 As of September 2005, the case was under investigation at the Municipal court in Vrsac.180 

Police Indifference in Pursuing Perpetrators of Ethnically Motivated Crimes

In the course of Human Rights Watch’s research into violence against minorities in Serbia, a number of victims expressed frustration with the indifferent reaction from the police when victims made reports about the incidents. The claims about police reactions emerge frequently, suggesting that they are credible.

Serbia’s recent history provides an additional reason why allegations of anti-minority bias on the part of police appear perfectly plausible. The police force was a key institution in the ultra nationalistic government of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic during 1990s. Non-Serbs were virtually excluded from its ranks. Nearly five years after the removal of Milosevic from power in October 2000, Serbia still has a long way to go before ultra-nationalism is eradicated from police service and from the Serbian society as a whole. The continued electoral strength of the ultra-nationalistic Serbian Radical Party, unparalleled in Europe, is only one illustration of the resilience of an anti-minority stance.181 Minorities are still grossly underrepresented among the police personnel (see above, “Structure of the Police, Prosecuting and Judicial Authorities”).

Minorities frequently complain that police tolerate ongoing aggressive acts by Serbian ultra-nationalists. Slovaks in the Vojvodina village of Lug, for example, told Human Rights Watch that prior to mid-2004, the Serbian police patrolling in the village were taking the side of Serb thugs who were often provoking brawls with local Slovak youth.182 On March 13, 2004, the police separated a group of Susek Serbs and Lug Slovaks who were fighting. After the two groups were separated, the Serbs allegedly continued to curse “Tot mothers” and waved metal bars to demonstrate their strength.183 According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the police tolerated the Serbs’ behavior, and insisted that Slovaks go home.184 

After the most serious incident which occurred in Lug, on April 3, 2004, in which three Serbs beat the two Slovak youths M.M. and J.G., the police reportedly reacted with indifference when M.M. entered the village café covered by blood. Twenty-three year old ethnic Slovak D.H., who was present in the café when M.M. walked in, approached the police and asked “Didn’t you see what the guy looked like?”  According to D.H., the policemen showed little interest in what was going on outside.185 

On March 17, 2004, according to the Mufti of Nis, when he called the police number available to the general public to report crimes, the person at the other end of the line said “We know the mosque is burning, and it should be burning.”186 On December 1, 2004, a group of four or five Serbs allegedly beat a Hungarian from the village of Doroslovo at a party for ethnic Hungarian students in Subotica. According to an eyewitness interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the police were slow to intervene, and then simply allowed the assailants to leave.187 

Human Rights Watch received similar complaints during 2005. In the late hours of March 27, 2005, unknown perpetrators painted “Death to Adventists!” on the fence surrounding the Adventist Faculty of Theology, in Belgrade. The president of the Main Board of the Adventist Church in Serbia, Miodrag Zivanovic, reported the incident to the police the following day. According the Zivanovic, the police told him “We also get attacked, it is not a big deal.”188 In early July 2005, when Serb apologists of the July 1995 genocide in Srebrenica damaged billboards in Belgrade commemorating the genocide, the police reportedly took no action to stop them and merely permitted those responsible to continue on their way.189  

Silence or Half-Hearted Condemnation of Violence

Serbian officials, with some exceptions, have failed to adequately condemn acts of ethnic violence by ethnic Serb ultra nationalists, or to take other steps to decrease tensions among the various ethnic communities. Those in the government of Serbia who could have made a real impact, had they spoken out, have instead invested more effort on keeping the violence within certain levels and placating the perpetrators.

By contrast, local politicians in Vojvodina have in most cases unambiguously condemned the violence against minorities where it took place in their local communities.190 The Executive Council of the Vojvodina Assembly has expressed similar disapproval of violence in Vojvodina.191 Given the limited powers of these structures, however, the impact of these condemnations is necessarily modest.  

The statement by the Serbian Minister of Interior Vladan Jocic, shortly after midnight on March 18, 2004, epitomizes the government’s unwillingness to strongly confront ethnic violence. At the time Jocic was being interviewed on a popular television network (TV BK), demonstrators had already set on fire the mosque in Nis, and were about to burn the mosque in the capital Belgrade. Crowds were also damaging Albanian and Gorani shops in Novi Sad. Jocic had this message to the public: “The citizens are justifiably embittered. However, in this way they will not help our citizens in Kosovo. The police have not used violence against its own people. We should be patient, because in this way we are not going to solve the problems ahead of us.”192 The minister’s disapproval of the ongoing violence was easily understood to be half-hearted and his message to the rioters was effectively that the police response would not be a forceful one.193 

Government officials have also failed to take the kind of action that would express the government support for, and solidarity with, Serbia’s minorities. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, for example, has never visited the mosque in Belgrade, which was damaged in the March 2004 violence.194 For the first half of 2004, government officials refrained from condemning ultra-nationalistic incidents against Hungarians and other minorities even after they became a high-profile public issue in Serbia. The first time a significant national government official condemned the violence was in July 2004, when Prime Minister Kostunica met with the delegation of the Hungarian national council in Serbia. Kostunica “expressed concern” and condemned ethnically motivated attacks on the ethnic Hungarians.195 In September 2004, Kostunica and the Minister of Serbia and Montenegro for Human and Minorities Rights Rasim Ljajic visited Vojvodina and vowed to end ethnic intolerance.196 In June and July 2005, ahead of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the genocide committed in July 1995 in Srebrenica, Serbian government officials failed to condemn repeated expressions of approval of the genocide by ultra-nationalists in Serbia.

Scarce Use of Article 134 (Prohibition of Incitement)

In spite of the numerous incidents against the minorities during 2004 and 2005, there were no criminal convictions against adults for violations of article 134. Diverting incitement crimes into the zone of misdemeanors and ordinary offenses of violent behavior has important implications. First, the punishments are significantly lighter than for incitement to ethnic/religious hatred, and in the case of misdemeanor proceedings the penalties are almost symbolic. Second, the implicit message to society is that inciting hatred against minorities should not be taken especially seriously.

One trial started and terminated before the district court in Sremska Mitrovica, resulting in the acquittal of the defendant in December 2004.197 In the same month, the district court in Sombor concluded an article 134 trial by ordering intensive parental supervision of a minor who painted graffiti calling for the slaughter of ethnic Croats.198 As of June 2005, there was also an ongoing case in Sremska Mitrovica against three minors, a case against an individual in the Novi Sad district court, and a trial in the Pancevo district court, all on article 134 charges.199 Prosecutors in Subotica and Zrenjanin, whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in the course of its research, did not issue any indictments under that article.200  Nor have the prosecutors in Nis, Belgrade, and other towns in Serbia issued article 134 indictments for offenses described in this report.

There have been no indictments in relation to the March 2004 attacks against ethnic Albanians, Muslims and Roma in Vojvodina either under article 134 or for regular criminal offenses.201 A small number of offenders who clashed with the police in Novi Sad in March 2004 faced misdemeanor proceedings, on benign charges such as “indecent, impudent, and unscrupulous behavior.” Those who clashed with the police in Belgrade are being investigated for the crime of preventing an official in the performance of police duties. As of July 2005, two people in Belgrade and eleven people in Nis have been indicted for their alleged involvement in the March 2004 mosque attacks in those cities. The charges in those cases pertain to participation in a group that commits violent acts.

The failure to charge anyone involved in the March violence with offenses under article 134, despite strong evidence of intention to incite hatred, demonstrates the reluctance of authorities to pursue incitement charges, and the failure to take seriously the phenomenon of anti-minority violence in Serbia.

The drunken Serb youths (all of them over 18 years of age) who vandalized a number of premises belonging to Slovak and Protestant communities in Backa Palanka in March 2004, were charged with damaging someone else’s belongings and received suspended prison sentences ranging from six months to one year.202 Three Serb adults who hung anti-Semitic posters in Belgrade on March 22, 2005 were sentenced to a ten-day imprisonment for misdemeanor (for “indecent, impudent, and ruthless behavior”).203   

Prosecutors usually explain that the reason they hardly ever resort to article 134 lies in their perception that it is difficult to prove the intent or advertent recklessness to incite hatred behind the offense.204 Prosecutors pointed out that the crowds in Novi Sad who attacked Albanian stores and Roma settlements on March 17 and 18, 2004, also smashed several windows on the building of the Executive Council of Vojvodina Assembly.205 Similarly, in the incident in Backa Palanka on March 28, 2004, some of the property attacked belonged to ethnic Serbs.206 Prosecutors involved in the latter case have taken this to mean than that the attackers, who later in the evening targeted Albanians and Roma, were simply hooligans.

Prosecutors may be overestimating the difficulty of proving the perpetrators’ intent or recklessness. For example, the damage done to the Executive Council building in Novi Sad in March 2004 did not mean that the attacks soon after on Albanians and Roma property were not intended to incite to ethnic violence. Motives of the perpetrators may vary depending on the target.207 The fact that a perpetrator may have mixed motives is entirely consistent with the purpose of article 134. Existence of additional factors does not cancel out existence of nationalistic motive, required for conviction under article 134.208 

In those cases in which religious sites were targeted, the intent or advertent recklessness required for the incitement offense can be discerned from the very choice of the target. An attack on a mosque or Islamic center is an invitation for the wider community to endorse the use of violence against the community whose identity the object symbolizes. Moreover, demonstrators in Nis, Belgrade, and Novi Sad called openly for hatred against ethnic Albanians (who are mostly Muslims) when they chanted “Kill, kill Shiptar!” during the attacks on mosques and Islamic center (see above, “Nis, March 17, 2004: Islam Aga Mosque,” “Belgrade, March 18, 2004: Bajrakli Mosque,” and “Novi Sad, March 18, 2004: Islamic Center (medzlis).” In any event, it is always open to the prosecutor to opt for lesser charges after the presentation of the evidence and before the conclusion of the trial, if incitement to hatred is not proved.

Prosecutors may also be succumbing to dominant ultra-nationalistic climate in Serbian society, in which prosecuting Serb suspects for anti-ethnic violence would be seen as unpatriotic. It is difficult to find any other explanation for the failure of prosecutors to use article 134 against the participants in the burning of the mosques in Belgrade and Nis on March 17, 2004.209

[174] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 2(1); see also ibid., article 26 (equal protection under the law).

[175] ICCPR, art. 2(2).

[176]  Human Rights Committee, General Comment 31, Nature of the General Legal Obligation on States Parties to the Covenant, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (2004), para. 8.

[177] International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Adopted and opened for signature and ratification by General Assembly resolution 2106 (XX) of 21 December 1965, entered into force 4 January 1969, article 5(b).

[178] Human Rights Watch interview with S.S., Vrsac, June 11, 2005.

[179] “Napad na Rome u Vrscu” (“Attack on Roma in Vrsac”), B92 web site, March 22, 2005 [online], (retrieved July 6, 2005).

[180] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Milan Tkalac, Vrsac Municipal Public Prosecutor, September 6, 2005.

[181] The Serbian Radical Party received the largest number of votes in the parliamentary elections in Serbia in December 2003, and in the presidential elections in June 2004 its candidate Tomislav Nikolic made it into the second round of the elections, in which he was narrowly defeated by the moderate Boris Tadic.

[182] After mid-2004, the police patrolling in Lug became more frequent in the past, and included participation of policemen who had not worked in the village before.

[183] “Tot” is a derogatory term for Slovaks.

[184] Human Rights Watch interview with D.H., Lug, July 18, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with J.K., Lug, July 18, 2004.

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with D.H., Lug, July 18, 2004.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview with Mustafa Jusufspahic, Mufti of Nis, June 1, 2005.

[187] Human Rights Watch interview with R.K., Srbobran, December 22, 2004.

[188] Human Rights Watch interview with Miodrag Zivanovic, president of the Main Board of the Adventist Church in Serbia, Belgrade, June 2, 2005.

[189] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Andrej Nosov, July 10, 2005. Nosov, the director of the nongovernmental organization Youth Initiative, which erected the billboards in Belgrade, was present at one situation in which the police spoke to the perpetrators and let them leave, and received information from an eyewitness, a woman in New Belgrade (a district of the capital), about an identical occurrence in that part of town.

[190] Examples of local authorities’ condemnation of nationalistic violence include:

Sombor municipal assembly condemned the desecration of the Catholic cemeteries in Backi Monostor (June 5/6, 2004) and Sombor July 2/3, 2004. Human Rights Watch interview with Zoran Miler, secretary at the Local Community (mesna zajednica) Backi Monostor, Backi Monostor, July 20, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with parish priest Josip Pekanovic, Sombor, July 13, 2004;

Backa Palanka municipal assembly condemned the smashing of the windows at Slovak cultural center and Slovak Evangelistic Church, on March 27/28, 2004. Human Rights Watch interview with Vasa Panic, then-deputy head of Backa Palanka Executive Council, Backa Palanka, July 27, 2004; 

In Stara Pazova, the executive council of the municipal assembly condemned the hate messages written on May 29/30, 2004, on facades of Slovak houses, religious objects belonging to non-Orthodox communities, and a kiosk owned by an ethnic Croat. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Zlatusa Totova, then-president of the Executive Council of Stara Pazova Municipal Assembly, July 28, 2004.

Zabalj municipal assembly condemned incidents in mid-March in the village of Djurdjevo, where, following the anti-Serb violence in Kosovo on March 17/18, groups of Serbs repeatedly beat young Ruthenians and painted nationalistic graffiti demanding expulsion of the Ruthenian minority. Human Rights Watch interview with Bogdan Vislavski, member of the Administrative Council of the Ruthenian Cultural Home “Taras Shevchenko,” Novi Sad, January 18, 2005.

[191] See, for example,“PIV: Protiv nasilja i vandalizma” (“[Vojvodina Executive Council]: Against Violence and Vandalism”), Dnevnik (Novi Sad), March 19, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 31, 2005).

[192] Human Rights Watch made a contemporaneous note of Jocic’s words as the program was being broadcast. Vladan Jocic interview on TV BK, March 18, 2004.

[193] The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination calls upon states parties to “discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.” International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, article 2 (1)(e).

[194] Human Rights Watch interview with Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic, Belgrade, June 1, 2005.

[195] “Kostunica osudio incidente” (“Kostunica Condemned the Incidents”), B92, July 13, 2004 [online],  (retrieved January 5, 2004).

[196] “Kostunica: Incidenti ne mogu da budu povod inicijativi” (“Kostunica:  Incidents Do Not Justify the Initiative”), Beta news agency, September 9, 2004, available at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia and Montenegro, at (retrieved January 31, 2005).

[197] See above, “Stara Pazova, May 29/30, 2004: a Rare Case of Prosecution for Incitement.”

[198] Human Rights Watch interview with Dusan Nikcevic, acting chief prosecutor in Sombor District Court, Sombor, January 28, 2005.

[199] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ratko Galecic, Sremska Mitrovica District Public Prosecutor,  June 17, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Zoran Pavlovic, Novi Sad District Public Prosecutor, June 6, 2005; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Milan Niskanovic, Pancevo District Public Prosecutor, September 5, 2005. The case in Sremska Mitrovica pertains to the painting of graffiti with hate messages in Stara Pazova, on the night of May 29/30, 2004. In the Novi Sad case, a 20-year-old man painted Nazi symbols on buildings in Novi Sad and the nearby town of Veternik; on the same day he also beat a boy of mixed ethnicity in Novi Sad. The prosecutor in Pancevo issued an indictment under article 134 against a married couple who allegedly cursed an officer in the police station in the nearby town of Kovin with the words “Hungarian mother.”

[200] Email communication with Dragan Lazic, Zrenjanin District Public Prosecutor, January 28, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Novica Bojovic, Subotica District Public Prosecutor, January 28, 2005.

[201] The demonstrators in Novi Sad repeatedly chanted, “Ubij, zakolji, da Siptar ne postoji!” (“Kill, slaughter, and annihilate Shiptars!”), evidence of ethnic enmity. See “Protesti, neredi i demoliranja na ulicama Novog Sada” (“Protests, Riots, and Demolitions in the Streets of Novi Sad”), Dnevnik (Novi Sad), March 19, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 5, 2004).

[202] See above, “Backa Palanka, March 28, 2004: Three Religious Shrines and Slovak Cultural and Publishing Society.”

[203] See above, “Belgrade, March 22, 2005: Minor Punishment in Misdemeanor Proceedings.”

[204] Human Rights Watch interview with Novica Bojovic, Subotica District Public Prosecutor, January 28, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Dusan Nikcevic, Acting Chief Prosecutor in Sombor District Court, Sombor, January 28, 2005; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Svetlana Savovic, District Public Prosecutor in Nis, June 6, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview with Zoran Pavlovic, Novi Sad District Public Prosecutor, June 6, 2005.

[205] Novi Sad Municipal Public Prosecutor drew attention to that fact, which in his opinion gives a more complete picture of the March 17 events in Novi Sad. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Novi Sad Municipal Public Prosecutor Obrad Protic, January 27, 2005.

[206] See above, case “Backa Palanka, March 28, 2004: Three Religious Shrines and Slovak Cultural and Publishing Society.”

[207] The prosecutor in the Backa Palanka case, analyzed below, faced this dilemma, given the variety of targets assaulted by the offenders. See case “Backa Palanka, March 28-30, 2004: Three Religious Shrines and Slovak Cultural and Publishing Society.”

[208]  United Kingdom legislation governing racially-aggravated offenses, may provide a useful comparison in this respect. The relevant section of the Crime and Disorder Act specifically states that, “It is immaterial for [establishing perpetrator’s hostility based on the victim's membership of a racial or religious group] whether or not the offender's hostility is also based, to any extent, on any other factor.” Crime and Disorder Act 1988, section 28.

[209] On June 1, 2004, Nis District Public Prosecutor charged eleven persons for participation in the group committing violent acts [participation in mob violence] (article 230 of the Serbian Penal Code). Humanitarian Law Center, “Inadequate Response of Police and Prosecutors to Burning of Mosques,” press release, June 07, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 31, 2005). The same offense under article 230 is the legal basis for the investigation into the March 17, 2004, burning of the mosque in Belgrade.  See “Istraga protiv sedam osoba zbog paljenja Bajrakli-dzamije” (“Investigation Against Seven Persons Concerning the Burning of Bajrakli Mosque”), B92 website, March 25, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 31, 2005).

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