The Serbian police must be held responsible for not reacting when citizens’ rights were threatened, which is supposed to be its primary purpose.
By Marija Ignjatijević (BCSP) / Photo: KRIK
- The prosecution and the police should investigate and find out who were the perpetrators who ordered the demolition of Belgrade district “Savamala” in the centre of the city and inform the public about it.
- The Internal Affairs Sector within the Ministry of Interior should conduct the procedure of internal police control and investigate the command responsibility because of unresponsiveness to the citizen’s calls.
- If the investigation shows that police leadership ordered its officers not to react to citizens’ calls, it is necessary to demand the resignations of Interior Minister and Acting Police Director.
During the night between April 24th and 25th, when all the attention in Serbia was focused on preliminary election results, a group of masked people has demolished private objects with bulldozers, in Hercegovačka street, in Belgrade district of Savamala. It is important to mention that the street belongs to the area where the Belgrade Waterfront project is to be built. The Serbian Crime and Corruption Reporting Network published exclusive footage of the event.
Night guards and random passers-by who found themselves on the spot were the victims of harassment by the masked group. Although the citizens called the police and reported the entire case, the police did not react and had redirected them to the Communal Police, who also did not come out on the field. State officials and media have been silent about the incident for days.
The first one to go public with the “Savamala case” was the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, Rodoljub Šabić. On the basis of citizens’ complaints, Šabić has called the city authorities and the mayor, Siniša Mali, to explain and inform the public of the circumstances under which the demolition in Savamala took place.
Unsurprisingly, Commissioner’s request has received poor media coverage and the wider public still remained deprived of any information. Political officials have started speaking out about a week after the incident, but only to distance themselves from responsibility. Political figures have switched responsibility from one to another, with completely inappropriate and absurd statements.
Besides claiming that the city authorities have nothing to do with the demolition, mayor Siniša Mali stated that he felt “absolutely safe considering the fact that no one has yet established what happened over there.”
When asked about the case, Chairman of the Assembly of the City of Belgrade, Nikola Nikodijević stated that the question was inappropriate to ask during a religious holiday.
Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović has appeared 6 days after the demolition, but only to say that the police will investigate the case. Furthermore, it was constantly denied that citizens reported the case to the police at all. In a nutshell, no one knew neither what happened, nor who is competent to determine and investigate it.
However, on Monday, May 9th, Ombudsman Saša Janković has, as a result of conducted control of legality and regularity in the work of Ministry of Interior, published a report regarding the nocturnal destruction in Savamala. This report clearly and unequivocally determines the omissions in the work of competent authorities and sheds light on the incident, as well as the responsibility for it.
Firstly, according to the report, on April 25th, around 2 AM, an organized, equipped and motorized group of people (between 20 and 30 of them in black uniforms and colourful masks) has taken control over a street in Belgrade neighbourhood of Savamala. They have blocked the street with two vehicles and started evacuating objects and people who found themselves in the area.
Certain people were even deprived of liberty and their personal belongings, including mobile phones, were temporarily seized. In two hours, the entire street was torn down.
Examined audio recordings of conversations have indicated that citizens have undoubtedly reported the case to the police. Namely, the very same night, after the departure of masked people, certain witnesses and victims of mistreatment and illegal demolition have spoken to the police. After the conversation with her superior, police phone operator said to one of the citizens that it was ordered “from the top of the police” to redirect them to Communal Police. However, they had sent them back to the state police.
Upon the review of documents, audio recordings and witness and police officers hearings, Ombudsman has concluded that this was not an individual mistake, but, on the contrary, the result of a previously prepared plan and given orders. The report assesses that “it was an organized violation of citizens’ rights, coordinated on multiple levels and between more state and non-state actors, which is especially worrisome.”
Regardless of everything else that is yet to be investigated, the main point is that the police must be held responsible for not reacting when citizens’ rights were threatened, which is supposed to be its primary purpose. Everything indicates that a multitude of criminal acts was committed, police were informed and should have reacted promptly if it works according to the law and in the service of citizens.
Nevertheless, Ombudsman’s report was not taken seriously and the officials have continued relativizing the importance of these criminal acts.
Both Prime Minister Vučić and the Interior Minister Stefanović have repeatedly stated that given objects were illegal, and thus, supposed to be demolished. Hence, it is unclear why should this incident receive as much space in the media and why the big fuss anyway. Aside the fact that these claims are not accurate, given that some objects were legally built and legal disputes over certain objects were not finished, or even started in some cases.
As Commissioner Šabić emphasizes, these statements are completely irrelevant and inappropriate, since there is a legal procedure that needs to be respected, even when illegal objects are being torn down. Not to mention disregarding a series of criminal acts which violated basic human rights and the absence of police reaction.
Moreover, a few days after the demolition, city authorities have decided to clear up the area of debris, which certainly prevents the competent authorities to carry out an adequate site investigation. So far, Higher Public Prosecution in Belgrade has requested a preliminary investigation from the police, as well as the control procedure from the internal police control sector. To this day, it is not clarified neither who were the perpetrators and who ordered it, nor why the police refused to respond to citizens’ calls.
“The masks have fallen” protest
The “Savamala case” has managed to break the general apathy and gather a large number of citizens in the protest “The masks have fallen” organised by the initiative “Let’s not drown Belgrade” on May 11th. The main message communicated through the protest was “You won’t get away with this”, showing how this time the line of citizens’ tolerance has really been crossed. Namely, the protestants have demanded resignations of responsible officials: the Major, the Chief of Belgrade Police, the Ministry of Interior and Acting Police Director. The “Let’s not drown Belgrade” initiative has announced more protests until the case is solved and perpetrators named responsible for their actions. In their opinion, it is necessary to insist on the responsibility of the police since it failed to protect citizens and their property. If such responsibility remains undetermined, trust in police and police integrity, in general, will be seriously decreased, the Initiative highlighted.