In-depth | BiH

Who’s in charge of Banja Luka’s public space?

By - 04.05.2020

Civil society afraid of what post-corona times could bring.

“You can buy us in a toy store, but not in elections!”

“Hello, minister, I want to play a game!”

“The square belongs to everyone, not only to your toys!”

These were messages placed next to the toys laid out in Banja Luka’s main square in late November 2019. As soon as the peculiar protest began, all the toys were “apprehended” by police officials, who later went on to arrest the alleged organizer, Stefan Blagić.

While arresting him, the police barred Blagić from talking to journalists. He was only told that he was being detained since neither he nor the other activists who had gathered had obeyed an order to disperse, and they had not informed the authorities about their plans for a public gathering beforehand.

Having been detained and questioned, Stefan Blagić is due to stand trial for violating Republika Srpska’s Law on Public Assembly and Public Peace. Photo courtesy of ReStart Srpska.

Blagić protested along with several members of the organization Justice for David, a group that was organized after the death in suspicious circumstances of David Dragičević in March 2018. Their aim was to remind their fellow citizens about the restrictions introduced by the government of the Republika Srpska (RS) entity in order to head off anti-government rallies.

Today — besides waiting for the COVID-19 emergency to pass — Blagić is also awaiting trial. But he is not the only one in Banja Luka to be called to court for civil disobedience.

Violence in Banja Luka’s streets 

Blagić, head of the NGO ReStart Srpska, and members of the Justice for David movement, are still determined to carry on with their resistance. Over the last two years, they have become popular across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for their sharp criticism of Milorad Dodik, head of the Independent Social Democrats Alliance (SNSD) — the strongest political party in RS. 

Since 1998, Dodik has held various government offices both at the entity and national level, having served as both prime minister and president of RS; he is currently one of the three members of the country’s Presidency.

Over time, the politician once considered a moderate became a source of frustration for civil society in RS, whose members have been using diverse activities to voice their opposition to the entity government for the past 10 years. 

Protests and public outcry have built up even more following the death of 21-year-old David Dragičević.

Dragičević disappeared on March 18, 2018. After six days, his body was found in the shallow Crkvina river, not far from the city center. According to initial police statements, his death was an accident. However, police admitted that the body had numerous bruises, which suggested that something could have happened prior to his death, and prosecutors subsequently opened an investigation. 

David’s family members believe he was murdered. 

They employed a team of lawyers and accused the police and prosecution of a cover-up, while starting a protest movement all over the country and receiving support not only from citizens, but also from high ranking international officials, including the EU Special Representative in BiH. 

In December 2018, the protests were forcefully put down by police.

More than two years later, the official investigation is still ongoing and the Prosecution in Banja Luka — the administrative center of RS — refuses to comment on it, saying that the case is still open. K2.0 contacted local police, only to be told that they have nothing more to add to what has been said previously.

David’s father, Davor Dragičević, began organizing protests at the end of March 2018 and continued to do so for months. Sometimes joined by tens of thousands from across BiH, the daily protests were held in the main square in Banja Luka; symbolically, it came to be known as “David’s Square.” Apart from the truth about his death, the protesters were calling for a more general compliance with the law and human rights.

In December 2018, the protests were forcefully put down by police officials. An unofficial curfew was soon rolled out as well, banning every form of public meeting from taking place in the city’s main square if it included more than three people.

Following the months-long protests, the police used force to clear away anyone who gathered to demand the truth about David Dragičević’s death. Photo courtesy of e-trafika.

The protests continued nevertheless as police forces moved to rid public spaces of all memorabilia laid out in memory of David. They also refused to allow a group of citizens to plant two quince saplings where his body was found.

Finally, on April 7, 2019, the day that marked the anniversary of David’s first burial (his parents later exhumed his body and, in protest, removed it from the country), a big heart shaped memorial was removed from the spot where his body was found.

The crackdown did not put an end to protests or the movement itself, but rather compelled the civil sector to become more creative. Unable to invite people to the main city square, Blagić brought some toys and put them on the bench once adorned with numerous items that used to remind the citizens of Banja Luka of the late David Dragičević.

Activists arrested and fined

Those who are part of the Justice for David movement or support it have come under particular pressure

For months, they held protests every day at the main square in Banja Luka. On December 25th, 2018, police tried to stop the protests, using force and several members of the movement were arrested. But still the protesters returned the next day, and the day after that. 

Another protest was organized in the city center on December 30, but the protest was forcibly quelled in a coordinated police operation. The Office of the Ombudsperson later investigated allegations about the police conduct during the protests and reported that a police officer beat up one person in the crowd while they were lying on the ground; the person ended up with broken ribs and was hospitalized with internal bleeding.

A New Year’s concert that had been due to be held by the city administration that night had to be cancelled; according to local officials, calling off all planned events cost them 180,000 konvertible marks (KM) (90,000 euros).

Aleksandar Gluvić has already been sentenced to 20 days imprisonment or a fine of 700 euros.

That same day, a warrant was issued for the arrest of three of the protest organizers. 

The city authorities maintain that the main culprits are Pavle Knežević, Bojana Gajanović and Anja Grubačić, who officially announced their protest by filing a registration report — as required by law. Knežević explained to the media that the protest had been organized on behalf of all young people of Banja Luka eager to use the opportunity to support David Dragičević’s family.

However, the mayor and the city administration deny that they were aware these three young people are in any way connected with the Justice for David movement. They said that for them Knežević, Gajanović and Grubačić are the formal organizers of the gathering that prevented the celebration. 

While they are currently waiting to be summoned to court, Aleksandar Gluvić has already been sentenced to 20 days imprisonment or a fine of 1,400 KM (700 euros) — just 100 KM short of the maximum fine provided by law. 

He was one of the people involved in the New Year’s protest, and was prosecuted after he refused a police order to leave Krajina Square 20 minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Standing in the square, Gluvić and his friends were shouting the slogans “Justice!” and “Justice for David!”

Gluvić says it is evident that the court proceedings against political dissidents were initiated by “someone from the top” and that this explains the capricious reasoning of the charges. The goal is, he continues, to have people intimidated through hefty fines and imprisonment so that every form of free expression of thought is stifled or reduced to a bare minimum.

Officials have always denied all accusations made against them or that there is any conspiracy to quash dissent. 

However, many activists in Bosnia, and especially in Banja Luka, believe that at least part of the strict measures introduced because of the pandemic by the RS government are aimed at censoring critics and preventing protests. Some of the measures have been repealed, yet there remains a fear that the laws will be reinstated and might lead to people being punished for what they write or speak.

The police actions had already managed to silence most activists through a wide variety of measures and penalties even before the coronavirus spread.

On December 31, 2018, the police authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Stela Milanović, a resident of Banja Luka suspected of the same offense as Gluvić. Milanović did not leave her home for seven months, believing that she would face a show trial. 

She turned herself in on July 14, 2019, only to be detained at the police department before being released without any hearing at the prosecutor’s office. Milanović claims that inspectors wanted to release her four hours in, but that they had received a telephone call and decided to keep her in detention.

“The system has been evidently repressing a specific group of citizens from gathering, challenging them or voicing their discontent.”

Milica Pralica, Oštra Nula

Earlier this year, on February 24, the Primary Court in Banja Luka acquitted Vedran Berić of charges that he disturbed the peace on May 25 the previous year; on that day — as the Banja Luka Gymnasium graduation procession was passing by — he stood at the atrium of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and shouted “Justice!” and “Justice for David!” with his hand raised.

Berić says that he was not stopped or identified on the day in question, adding that there is no recording of him committing any of the actions he was accused of doing. According to his testimony at the trial, he was charged with a misdemeanor based on photographic records of an earlier date kept by the police — in addition to this, he points out that about a hundred other people are facing identical charges.

Milica Pralica, head of the Oštra Nula civil society association that promotes human rights, says that the December 2018 police crackdown on protesters marked a significant moment in terms of people’s freedom of speech and assembly. 

“From then on, the system has been evidently repressing a specific group of citizens from gathering, challenging them or voicing their discontent,” she says.

Pralica notes that political rallies are unhampered across Republika Srpska and Banja Luka in particular, which cannot be said for non-political meetings.

“We’ve got this semblance of democracy where opposition leaders can protest, but citizens can’t,” she says. “So far, public gatherings, or rather the use of public space, have shown that the civil rights guaranteed by international and local regulations are not respected.”

Measures against color revolutions

The list of prohibitions goes on.

After members of the Justice for David movement took part in the 2019 Women’s Day March, the activists who had registered the event were threatened with misdemeanor charges by the police.

In late November 2019, Oštra Nula organized a conference titled “The Issue of Freedoms in Academic and Public Discourses” that was scheduled to be held at the University of Banja Luka’s Philosophy Faculty.

Following the announcement that one of the speakers would be a member of the Justice for David movement, the faculty management pulled out from hosting the event. Pralica draws attention to the fact that in previous years — when Oštra Nula partnered with the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade — all editions of this annual conference took place at the faculty premises.

The 2019 event was still held — albeit in a private hotel.

“The unavoidable objections to the curbing of democracy should be countered with assertions that Republika Srpska is to gain strength and thrive.”

RS Academy of Arts, 2014

Dražen Crnomat from the Banja Luka Social Center — where a variety of community activities are held — says that the apparent criminalization of the Justice for David movement is proving to be a threat to the right to assembly for other organizations as well. “Even the public use of the word ‘justice’ has been criminalized by the ministry,” Crnomat remarks.

He points to previous pressure on civil society, including the 2014 meeting “Color Revolutions as an Instrument of Geopolitical Transformation.” Held by the RS Academy of Arts and Sciences, the meeting laid out “measures against color revolutions,” a term used by the media to describe the wave of peaceful protests that began in the 2000s in the former Soviet Union, China and the Balkans that resulted in the downfall of some governments.

According to the Academy representatives, color revolutions are to be prevented with armored personnel carriers, water cannons with colored water, helmets and full body armor, riot shields, gas masks, teargas, rubber bullet guns, tasers, pepper spray, dogs, horses, etc. The Academy advised the RS National Assembly to look into the law on financing the NGO sector modelled after United States legislation from 1938.

“Whoever is paid by foreigners should be registered as an agent of foreign interests,” the Academy stated, adding that, even though these organizations would be able to continue with their activities, they would be branded “foreign agents” in the media and through official statements by RS officers.

“The unavoidable objections to the curbing of democracy should be countered with assertions that — through this law — Republika Srpska is to gain strength and thrive, drawing on the experience and practices of the most democratic country in the world,” the meeting concluded.

For more than a year, public group gatherings in Banja Luka have effectively been forbidden. Even for a group of toys. Photo courtesy of e-trafika.

The RS government was quick to adopt these measures. Activists assert that the result is security levels are being increased to such an extent that every gathering now requires a police presence, even at events only partially open to the public.

‘There are only the privileged and the persecuted’

In the meantime — having come under political pressure and been arrested himself — David Dragičević’s father Davor has left BiH; the Dragičević family subsequently decided to transport David’s remains to Austria, where David’s mother Suzana already lived. Both David’s mother and father keep fighting the RS government, saying they will not stop.

In late 2019, Davor and the remaining members of Justice for David movement announced that they will be forming a political party and run in the autumn 2020 election; hence, they have become an even bigger threat to the local system.

NGOs across BiH have filed numerous complaints to all levels of government and to international organizations concerning police brutality and the denial of the right to freedom of public assembly. However, none of these complaints have resulted in legal action.

“It’s interesting that all lawsuits and criminal charges activists have filed to legal institutions are being dropped, particularly if these are against Ministry of Internal Affairs officials,” Blagić says.

The most important thing for the common people is to choose their side. If they pick right, they’re protected too.”

Tanja Topić, Friedrich Ebert Foundation

Tanja Topić, a political analyst and the director of Friedrich Ebert Foundation Office in Banja Luka, says that the government’s attempts to reduce citizens to submission are successful because of the even more destructive power of the majority staying silent.

“In the past two years, we’ve come to learn and understand that there is no rule of law here — there are only the privileged and persecuted,” Topić suggests.

She illustrates her point by pointing to one of the restrictions rolled out as part of the pandemic response, which bans public gatherings of three or more people.

“This limitation pertaining to the number of people allowed to meet was introduced as a restrictive measure during the emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she notes, adding that, despite all restrictions and assembly bans, Christians gathered in churches to celebrate Easter, even during curfew.

“I’m only saying that we aren’t all the same here, the rules are not the same for everyone,” she says. “There are some who are above these rules, while the most important thing for the common people is to choose their side. If they pick right, they’re protected too, nevermind their transgressions.”

Author and activist Srđan Šušnica, a long term vociferous critic of all levels of government in BiH who left the country following a series of threats, say the RS authorities have used the pandemic to “formally enforce and legitimize the state of curtailed freedoms of thought, expression, criticism and movement — the state of dictatorship that has essentially been in place for years.”

“The regime armed and militarized the RS police even before, preparing it for a clash with both an ‘external and internal enemy,’” he says. “Even before, the police and political leadership of RS had unlimited power unchecked by constitution, law or any other institution.”

Following the onset of the pandemic, activists in RS are laying low. 

However, they fear that their rights and freedoms, as well as those of everyone who lives in this part of BiH, may come under an even bigger threat when things are back to “normal,” where all dissidents are considered enemies. Including toys.K

Feature image courtesy of e-Trafika.