Lately | COVID-19

Human rights on hold

By - 15.04.2020

Civil society goes to court over human rights violations.

Deserted streets, long lines in front of groceries and pharmacies, carts full of essential food items, the Belgrade Fair and city gymnasiums turned into hospitals filled with army cots.

And silence.

This is Belgrade after Serbia’s state of emergency was declared on March 15. Throughout Serbia there is silence and emptiness. And fear.

Serbian citizens, as well as many other people in neighboring countries, fear the COVID-19 virus, an unknown enemy. But Serbs also fear the possibility that the government that imposed the strict isolation measures could use the current situation to further erode human rights.

Questioning the Government’s decisions

The A11 Initiative for Economic and Social Rights — an NGO focused on the promotion and protection of human rights — has examined whether the measures introduced alongside the state of emergency deviate from the concept of respect for rights guaranteed to everyone by local laws and international conventions alike.

Among other things, the A11 analysis shows that the measures not only repealed freedom of movement, but also the right to liberty and the security of personhood, which occurred “in a way that creates a state of legal uncertainty and unpredictability.”

15 days after the state of emergency was declared, a group of six lawyers petitioned the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the government’s decision.

The effects of certain measures, as stated in the report, are equivalent to the deprivation of liberty.

Furthermore, measures laid down in the Offense Regulation concerning violations of the Interior Minister’s Order on the Restriction and Prohibition of Movement are suggested to be in contravention to the Constitution by A11, which calls for their repeal.

According to the regulation, violators can be punished in both civil and criminal proceedings.

The A11 Initiative is not the only group drawing attention to these issues;15 days after the state of emergency was declared, a group of six lawyers petitioned the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the government’s decision, drawing attention to similar problems.

A vocal response from the public has been lacking, partially due to the fact that many people in Serbia are left shocked by how quickly the reports on “the most ridiculous virus in the history of mankind” — as government officials branded the COVID-19 virus at the media conference organized on February 27 — have given way to the introduction of drastic measures.

Serbia has banned movement from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekdays; and from Friday to Monday 6 a.m. on the weekends. This Orthodox Easter Friday, April 17, the lockdown will extend from Friday at 5 p.m. to Tuesday 5 a.m. 

“I think we’re in Serbian democracy’s darkest hour since 2000,” Dobrica Veselinović of the Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own Initiative said, adding that he expects further institutional degradation in the country.

The year 2000 is remembered by Serbian people for electoral fraud and protests that presaged the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, who was forced out of power in October of that year.

Journalism as a crime

In late March — in the most recent addition to their drastic measures — the Government of Serbia issued an order stating that those who report information on coronavirus treatments given by “unauthorized persons” can be held responsible for spreading disinformation. The order goes on to state that the only people authorized to inform the public on COVID-19 are the Prime Minister — as Crisis Staff team leader — and other people delegated by the Staff themselves.

It did not take long for a specific event to take place in order for the decision to be implemented.

On April 1, law enforcement officers came for journalist Ana Lalić in Novi Sad after the prosecution office and police were notified by the Clinical Center of Vojvodina (KCV) that she “disturbed the public” and “damaged KCV’s reputation” in one of her articles. More specifically, they referred to her news article, “KCV on the Verge of Collapse: No Protection for Nurses,” maintaining that she made false claims and that they have a sufficient supply of necessary medication, sanitary items and personal protection equipment at their disposal.

One day before the publication of Lalić’s piece, the Doctors and Pharmacists Union of Serbia pointed out the same issue.They claim that doctors and medical staff work without adequate protection equipment, so every sixth COVID-19 case is a health professional.

“If they do not protect doctors and nurses, there will not be any healthy staff left to provide treatment, which is bound to lead to a worst-case scenario with issues far greater than the ones we have seen so far,” the union said.

“You can’t stop journalists from finding out information and reporting it. That goes against the EU practice.”

Milan Antonijević, Open Society Foundation Serbia.

Before her arrest, Lalić responded to KCV by saying that she agreed with them on one point. “Your reputation has been damaged indeed, but it isn’t my writing that damaged it — it’s your shameful treatment of your own staff.”

Lalić was arrested and detained for 24 hours, the prosecution office hinted at the possibility of filing criminal charges. Having been subsequently released, she awaits her potential trial continuing to work with her colleagues’ support.

“This sort of control is only counterproductive,” Milan Antonijević, the Open Society Foundation Serbia executive director said. “You can’t stop journalists from finding out information and reporting it. That goes against the EU practice.”

However, some EU member states have not been particularly exemplary during the pandemic.

One of Serbia’s neighboring countries is Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orbán has now taken absolute power. On March 30, the Hungarian government passed a law granting Orbán the power to rule by decree and extend the state of emergency indefinitely, without previous consultation with the parliament.

The state of emergency in Hungary was introduced on 11 March. The law also provides for five years in prison for spreading “fake news” about a virus or government measure.

Veselinović is afraid that a similar scenario is more than likely to play out in Serbia as well.

“Two weeks ago, Orbán and Vučić met twice in a matter of days,” Veselinović said.The first meeting was held in Belgrade and the following one in Budapest.

“I suppose that the state of emergency will be extended by the Serbian government for a very long time — following their Hungarian counterparts. That will be accompanied with a constant erosion of human rights and liberties,” the activist added.

Citizens arrested

Danilo Čurčić, who co-authored the A11 Initiative analysis report, is not that pessimistic, believing that Sebia will not follow the Hungarian example since “such a suspension would constitute a coup d’état.”

“Nevertheless, there’s a reasonable danger of the struggle against coronavirus turning into a struggle against democracy and human rights, that is utterly unacceptable,” he pointed out, calling for everyone in Serbia to protest even at slightest hints of these actions “as responsible citizens” and to make use of all available mechanisms in order to stand against ideas like these.

Apart from journalists, Serbian authorities have been arresting people who were ordered to self-isolate after returning to the country from both short and long stays abroad. The authorities maintain that forgoing self-isolation is also a breach of Article 248 of the Criminal Code that is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years.

“It’s precisely in the times of crisis that more effective human rights protection should be ensured.”

Danilo Čurčić, A11 Initiative.

139 people were arrested by the first week of April. Some were jailed or fined immediately and released, while others are awaiting trial.

Outraged by these measures, groups of citizens — some self-organized, some from local NGOs — started a petition called “Freedom for the unjustly detained, ”demanding an end to this practice. Over 13,000 people have signed it so far.

Čurčić explains that the current state of emergency does not give anyone carte blanche to violate human rights.

“It’s precisely in the times of crisis that more effective human rights protection should be ensured,” he said, adding that Serbia is faced with “an additional risk factor.”

“Further risk lies in the fact that institutions prove to be weak even in a state of non-emergency. Professional associations are increasingly drawing attention to the judicial system coming under the influence and pressure of the executive branch. Unfortunately, the Ombudsperson has been failing to act upon the public’s requests pertaining to the protection of their rights,” Čurčić explained.

“On top of all that, a quite weak culture of human rights paints an even bleaker picture on the whole,” he concluded. According to Čurčić, the A11 has called on the Government to protect human rights immediately, but there has been no response. He is skeptical that there would be any.

“Given how they have been handling the crisis so far, the government has failed to show us that human rights have been considered in the process of devising measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Čurčić said.

This was confirmed on April 5, when Ana Brnabić announced that “some other rights can be suspended for the sake of life as a basic human right,” adding that she would like to hear proposals from those experts who claim that the declaration of the state of emergency was unconstitutional. 

Human rights experts say that they will continue to document violations while working on finding ways to protect rights, noting that legal proceedings will be initiated “following the crisis.”K

Feature image: Dejan Kožul.