Dozens of individual sneakers scattered on the corner of Takovska and Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra streets – this scene was created after a police cordon “cleared” that space from demonstrators at a Belgrade protest that took place on the night between July 8 and 9. A few minutes before the police intervention, Natan Albahari, international secretary of the Movement of Free Citizens, was at that exact location. He tells the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) that he was one of those who suffered blows from police nightsticks despite not having done anything.
Albahari underscores that he was not interested in clashing with the police and that he had started to walk away.
“At one point a charge began, the police headed toward us en masse, toward Bulevar and that intersection,” Albahari recalls.
A stampede ensued and our interlocutor says that he saw policemen hitting anyone who was in their way and that people wanted to get out of the way and run.
“That turned into a horror scene where people were literally climbing over each other to escape. People were falling in front of me.”
He says that he later found out that the police continued to beat the people who had fallen and made a pile on the ground. He doesn’t remember how he got up and left the mass of fallen people, he knows that at some point he lost his glasses but kept running. However, the situation did not calm down there. The policemen pushed them all against the wall of a nearby building and started hitting them with nightsticks.
“So, we are leaving the one where we’re suffocating, where the situation is chaotic, and we’re met by the police who continue hitting us with nightsticks,” he says.
Albahari felt a couple of blows to his legs, despite having raised his hands. According to him, he was moving away from the policemen who were following them, hitting them the whole time.
“It’s so humiliating, like animals on a farm, like cattle that are being hit so they would pass through. They were literally just hitting us like that ‘faster, faster, c’mon, c’mon’,” he recalls the clashes of the night between July 8 and 9.
Unlike him, Ivan Cvetić arrived at the protest a little later, around 9:30 p.m. He says he was not involved in the attacks on the police, but was rather observing the scene while avoiding the front rows. At some point, mounted police headed toward the group he was in with a friend, and so they moved to Tašmajdan Park. They realized they should not stay there because the police would head toward them. They starting moving away from there, but the park was soon surrounded by police.
“A cordon, a really big one, headed from that left side, mounted police and Bulevar were on the right. We started running and then we saw there was a third cordon in position there, but they were just standing,” Cvetić recalls.
After that, in Cvetić’s words, tear gas was thrown all over the place and people started running. In those moments it was every man for himself. After he ran across the street, Cvetić found a place on the ground where he could jump in and curl up. However, policemen ran up to him instantly.
“A bunch of them came up to me, but as many as could manage in that space – that many hit me. I think three at most could hit me. After one hit me once or twice, a new one came over to do the same. I think about five or six of them must have taken turns [hitting me],” says Cvetić.
He remembers that about halfway one of them could be heard shouting “enough, enough.” The second wave repeated that, too, but they kept going nonetheless. After he gathered his wits, he counted the marks left by the blows. The two on his head, he says, were not made by nightsticks but by kicks.
“Luckily, one of those kicks that was to the mouth, the lower lip, was not at full force, I guess. I started bleeding after that, but they didn’t break my teeth.”
NGO: Unjustified Use of Force
A researcher of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, Saša Đorđević, told CINS that the Law on Police obliges police officers to use force from the lightest to more severe and, in any case, the minimum force necessary, when necessary.
He says that excessive use of force entails that a police officer has illegally, unfoundedly, disproportionately, not gradually and without respecting the dignity of human life and humaneness, used one of the means of force, of which there are thirteen – from physical force, through means of tying to firearms.
“Use of force is an extraordinary measure which must not be applied unfoundedly, but rather proportionately to the threat. Damage and injury must be to the smallest extent possible and only in a situation where a legitimate objective needs to be achieved,” says Đorđević.
He further says that during the use of force, police officers first and foremost need to protect human lives and cause as few injuries as possible. They are also obliged to provide, as soon as possible, medical assistance to any person who has been injured.
Excessive use of force during these protests, according to Đorđević, should be investigated by the prosecutor’s office, the Internal Control Sector of the Ministry of Interior, the Ombudsperson and the National Preventive Mechanism for prevention of torture.
“At best, the parliamentary Defense and Internal Affairs Committee should request an emergency report on police conduct during the protests. Furthermore, it is also important that the prosecutor’s office investigate who had initiated the riots and attacked the policemen, why and how,” he says.
CINS tried to get information from the Ministry of Interior as to whether procedure has been launched against some policemen for excessive use of force, but did not receive an answer by the time this article was published.
The Ombudsperson, on the other hand, on July 9 issued a statement that the police had not used excessive force, except in individual cases because of which his office had initiated the procedure of checking the legality of police actions.
Misdemeanor Charges Against at Least 70 People
On suspicion that they had disturbed public order and peace, at least 70 citizens were arrested and prosecuted before misdemeanor courts – 35 citizens in Belgrade and 35 in Novi Sad.
According to representatives of the Belgrade Misdemeanor Court, 11 citizens have been acquitted. Five people have been fined, whereas two who were unable to pay the 80,000 dinar fine agreed to a 60-day prison sentence. The others paid the fines. The remaining 19 persons gave statements, while proceedings will continue regularly, i.e. will not be shortened like in the other cases since there were no witnesses.
In Novi Sad, 13 people have been fined, one of whom replaced the fine with a 50-day prison sentence. Proceedings against 16 individuals will be led in a regular period, five persons have been acquitted, whereas one person was immediately sent away due to having a fever, according to representatives of the Novi Sad Misdemeanor Court.
The penalties for this misdemeanor include fines of between 10,000 and 150,000 dinars, 80 to 360 hours of community service or a prison sentence of between 30 and 60 days.
Sanja Radivojević of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights says that many people who suffered blows from the police have contacted the NGO. Some of them were detained by the police, while others were not arrested.
“They are mostly pointing out that they sustained minor injuries through the use of official batons by members of the police,” she says.
According to her, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights is trying to help these people by providing legal aid and pressing charges. Charges will be pressed against unidentified persons, because the identity of the police officers cannot be determined.
“They were wearing those uniforms of theirs and beating them (the demonstrators) in groups where it is actually impossible to determine who hit them and how,” she adds.
In Radivojević’s words, they have pressed 15 charges so far.
When asked what they expect from those charges, she says that the Belgrade Center for Human Rights is not too optimistic. She does not even think the identity of those unidentified individuals will be determined, let alone that they will be punished:
“Even when we do know the identities of police officers who have overstepped their authority, very often either a plea bargain is made or they are put on probation, therefore those are always the mildest sentences or some alternatives.”
Asked whether police conduct at these protests was more brutal than at some past ones, Radivojević says that the personal impression of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights is that the tolerance limit of police officers has gotten lower.
She adds that she believes that such police behavior is not regular, but rather that, unfortunately, some policemen have sullied the reputation of the uniform they wear.