Protests continued across Montenegro for the third night in a row on Thursday (May 14), despite restrictions intended to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) believers have gathered in various towns and cities, calling for the release of eight clergymen arrested on Tuesday. On Wednesday, protests in Montenegro’s second largest city of Nikšić and in the town of Pljevlja ended with clashes between police and protesters, though Thursday’s protests passed without incident.
The latest tensions come amidst ongoing divisions in Montenegro over a controversial new Law on Freedom of Religion, which was passed at the very end of 2019. The SPC sees the law as a threat to its existence in Montenegro, saying that it will allow for their places of worship to be seized by the state. The government argues that the law treats all religious communities equally.
Between December 2019 and April 2020, the SPC held regular litije — religious gatherings and mass prayers — at least twice a week in the streets of Podgorica and other Montenegrin cities, before the pandemic lockdown forced them to temporarily move their gatherings online.
The current wave of protests began following the arrests of Bishop Joanikije and seven priests on Saint Basil of Ostrog Day, a major Orthodox holiday usually celebrated annually by a mass pilgrimage to the Nikšić monastery bearing the saint’s name, where his remains are said to be kept. The gathering is traditionally concluded with litija performed by believers filing through the city.
The traditional gathering had not officially been planned to be held this year, with Montenegro’s COVID-19 measures banning large public gatherings, and limited religious gatherings only permitted within places of worship. However, thousands of worshippers came together on the streets nevertheless, prompting the police to arrest the religious leaders, later stating that they had failed to seek the necessary permit for their procession.
After being questioned at the Basic State Prosecutor’s Office in Nikšić, the detainees were placed in custody for 72 hours. The church rejects all allegations of having organized the rally, claiming that they did not call for a gathering.
New wave of protests
Following the arrests, on Wednesday protesters set up a number of roadblocks, and protest walks and rallies were held in various locations around the country, including the capital Podgorica, Bar, Berane and Andrijevica. In Nikšić and Pljevlja, the protests ended in violence, with protesters and police both alleging that the other was responsible.
According to the police, the gathered citizens assaulted officers without provocation and proceeded to pelt them with stones, bottles, firecrackers and other objects. Protesters and other citizens say that it was the police that attacked them and that they used excessive force.
Protesters and police were hurt in the clashes, with police reporting that 26 officers had been injured and that dozens of protesters had been arrested. In Nikšić alone, 14 citizens and 21 police officers were reportedly injured.
One of those arrested by police was Nikšić-based journalist Veliša Kadić, who works as a correspondent for Belgrade’s Večernje Novosti. He claims police officers seized him and hauled him into a car while he was on duty.
Kadić says he was taking photos of a young man being beaten up when a group of police officers approached him and — without letting him explain why he had been photographing the scene — wiped his phone before tear-gassing him. The journalist was released three hours later with an apology.
In another case of alleged police brutality, a father says that his 16-year-old son was kicked in the face by a police officer. A similar incident was witnessed in Pljevlja, when a woman was injured while waiting in a queue in front of a pharmacy.
The incidents have caused much controversy in Montenegro, with condemnation of the police actions and use of force extending beyond SPC supporters; analysts have pointed out that allegations of police brutality are not uncommon in Montenegro.
However, following the analysis of relevant footage from the protests, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Work concluded that the police’s use of force was in response to attacks on officers and was warranted.
Escalating blame game
Both government officials and citizens continue to talk of the violence. What they cannot seem to agree on, however, is who was the attacker and who were the victims.
In a public announcement on Thursday, Prime Minister Duško Marković said that Montenegro had been “exposed to a brutal attack,” before accusing protesters of endangering public health and undermining all the efforts made in recent months to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“There is no reasonable explanation or excuse for this sort of behavior and actions,” Marković said. “While on duty to maintain law and order, a number of police force personnel were assaulted and injured by extremists.”
However the SPC is standing its ground. Since the bishop and priests were arrested, church officials have been planning to prevent their remand to pre-trial detention. Prosecutors have reportedly warned that the clergymen could face up to 12 years in prison on charges of violating the virus restrictions.
SPC leaders in Montenegro, including its head, Metropolitan Amfilohije, have warned that they will continue to protest until the clergymen are released, even if that means that they themselves are arrested.
“We have filed a request for them to be released tomorrow morning,” said Gojko Perović, an SCP clergyman, speaking in Podgorica Cathedral on Thursday (May 14). “If that does not happen, we are coming here again. The moment they see us tomorrow, they can start rounding us up one by one. Metropolitan Amfilohije said he should be arrested first, but we will not let them do that before they apprehend us all.”
New protests are due to be held on Friday.K
Feature image: Boris Pejović.