How did the police conduct during the environmental protests in Serbia, read concisely in the new prEUgovor Brief Alert.

Freedom of Assembly under Attack:  Problematic Police Conduct at Environmental Protests

The end of 2021 was marked by civic protests that were organised with the request to withdraw the amendments to the Law on Expropriation and amend the Law on Referendum and People’s Initiative. The initial reason for the protests was the Government’s plan to allow the exploitation of lithium in western Serbia with potentially enormous environmental consequences. The organisation Kreni-Promeni [Go-Change] came to the fore as the leader of these peaceful protests. Citizens gathered peacefully for two Saturdays in a row, first on 27 November, when they blocked roads and bridges for one hour, and then on 4 December, when a much larger crowd gathered in more than 50 cities in Serbia for a two-hour-long road blockade. As a result of serious public pressure, the Serbian authorities met the two protest demands. The organisers withdrew, but other environmental associations, assessing that only a part of the bigger problem has been solved, organised blockades on 11 December as well.

However, the actions of the police during the protests themselves, but also in the days before and after them, are a cause for concern. Namely, after the first protest, video clips appeared showing police officers using excessive force against the citizens of Belgrade. The public was, however, especially disturbed by the footage from the events in Šabac that showed possible coordination between the people in civilian clothes who started to physically confront the protesters, and the police who left the scene a few moments earlier.

In the week between the two protests, the Ministry of the Interior introduced a special telephone hotline to report blockades that endangered security during the protests, which human rights defenders characterised as potential intimidation in view of the new blockades. The Minister of the Interior announced that next time the police would “use violence” (author’s note: this does not refer to the legally allowed, proportional force), at the same time calling the blockade of roads an act of fascism. Ahead of the second protest, several activists and journalists from various parts of Serbia reported that police officers had paid them a visit and warned them not to go. The President of Serbia called on the police to step aside and let the citizens block the roads; they seem to have heard him, as not a single blue uniform was seen anywhere at the protests the following Saturday. On the other hand, citizens reported the presence of plainclothes police officers who took their personal information. The epilogue was that a large number of protesters received - to their home addresses - misdemeanour warrants for blocking traffic, which experts assess as problematic and another form of pressure on citizens.

This document has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union, as part of the project “PrEUgovor Policy Watch: building alliances for stronger impact in uncertain future”. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the prEUgovor coalition and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.