Citizens do not know either who are the mysterious phantoms, on whose orders they acted, or why the police refused to answer the citizens’ calls.
By Marija Ignjatijević (European Union Institute for Security Studies) / Photo: Vice
One year have passed since competent authorities have failed to provide any explanation whatsoever regarding controversial Savamala case.
The election night of April 24, 2016 will be remembered for an event when group of uniformed and masked people blocked and razed to the ground 12 objects in the Belgrade district of Savamala. The peculiarity of this case is not reflected solely in the illegal demolition performed in the Serbian capital, but also in a series of accompanying criminal offenses and other irregularities which ensued in the following months. The masked group has also captured and harassed night guards and random bystanders who found themselves in Savamala that night. Most importantly, the police refused to response to the citizen’s calls and neglected to protect them.
Ever since the incident, political officials have been trying to downplay the importance of the case and deny their own responsibility. In order to control the damage and appease the public, roughly a month and a half after the incident, the President of the Government Aleksandar Vučić declared that “the top city officials” were behind the demolition. Regardless of this claim, no one has taken the responsibility yet. The Mayor of Belgrade Siniša Mali and other city officials are still in their positions.
Criminal procedure is still at the stage of the preliminary investigation. The Higher Public Prosecution in Belgrade has been asking the police to fulfill its legal obligation and deliver gathered evidence. According to the portal “Insider”, the Prosecution sent 4 requests to the police so far, demanding the data regarding the Savamala case. The police have ignored these requests, thereby hampering the entire process. Most recently, the Prosecution sent an alert in order to urge the police to act upon the submitted requests.
However, the Prosecution itself has not used all the legal mechanisms at its disposal to remove the obstacles that are impeding the process. The Criminal Procedure Code envisages that, in the case of disregard of its requests, the Public Prosecutor can eventually commence a disciplinary procedure against a person within the police suspected to be responsible for failing to act upon Prosecutor’s orders.
The only state institution which provided information regarding the night-time demolition is the Ombudsman. Back in May 2016, the Ombudsman conducted an investigation and compiled a report which demonstrates that the police was ordered “from the top” not to react. None of the recommendations from the report have been fulfilled to this date. Thereby, the police have by far exceeded the legal deadline to implement the recommendations or at least inform the Ombudsman of the reasons for not doing so.
Taking everything into account, the Savamala case represents a clear indicator of poor inter-institutional cooperation between police and prosecutor and police politicization.
In the meantime, the “Let’s Not Drown Belgrade” Initiative organized a series of six mass protests which gathered tens of thousands of people requesting accountability for the demolition, police inaction and the subsequent silence of the competent institutions.
Instead of providing information and answers, the state officials have repeatedly accused the Initiative and protesters of being “foreign mercenaries” whose only goal was to undermine the government. In September 2016, the “Let’s not drown Belgrade” activists, Ksenija Radovanović and Dobrica Veselinović, have requested the documents on the surveillance over them from the police. With the explanation that such data represent a “state secret” and are “highly confidential”, the Interior Minister refused to deliver the information, thus depriving the activists of their constitutionally guaranteed right.
This right can be limited and data labeled as “top secret” when an authorized person (the Interior Minister in this case) estimates there is a possible damage to the interest of the Republic of Serbia. Therefore, it can be easily inferred that the Initiative leaders have been considered as detrimental to the national interests and security. Likewise, conflicts with international organizations representatives and foreign ambassadors have occurred whenever they pointed out the necessity of a rapid clarification of the facts related to the Savamala demolition. The question arises whether any kind of criticism directed towards the Government actions will be characterized as a threat to the state order, or the critics themselves as state enemies.
On the other hand, a different court proceeding related to the Savamala demolition has received its epilog very promptly. The Interior Minister filed a private lawsuit against the weekly magazine “NIN”, for the alleged defamation of his reputation with the June issue cover. The article headlined “Nebojša Stefanović, the main Savamala phantom“, pointed out the political responsibility of the Interior Minister for the organized inaction of the police. However, the Higher Court in Belgrade found the weekly magazine guilty and ordered it to pay the financial compensation, after a single hearing. Not only that this verdict speaks about the state of media freedom in the country, but it also indicates the selective implementation of the law and the political pressure over the independent institutions.
The Savamala incident and the subsequent refusal of the police to cooperate in the investigation process have undoubtedly undermined the already fragile citizens’ trust in this institution. The nocturnal demolition and all the events and statements that followed, have brought the operative independence of the police and prosecution into question. Thus, it is not solely about the „three illegally built shacks“, to quote the President of the Government, but about the essential rule of law principles and citizens’ security.
Although the latest European Commission Serbia Report has not singled it out, the Savamala case, and the systemic problems it reveals, fall within the framework of the recently opened negotiating chapters 23 and 24. These chapters, focused on the rule of law and police reform, are of crucial relevance for Serbia’s EU accession, the process so vocally supported by the current ruling party. However, the Savamala case represents an embodiment of the absence of political will and decision to thoroughly work towards true progress within these areas.
Author is Junior Associate Fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. The contents of the analysis are the sole responsibility of the Author and views expressed in this analysis are not necessarily those of the European Union Institute for Security Studies.