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CINS: Unequal treatment of demonstrators arrested during the protests in Serbia

Protests in Belgrade, photo: Danas/Vladimir Živojinović

BELGRADE – Following protests in Belgrade and Novi Sad in early July, Serbian misdemeanor courts handed down a total of 43 convictions in express proceedings. Almost half of these verdicts were passed on the basis of the testimonies of the police officers, while the testimonies of the citizens were not considered true by the judges, according to the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) research.

As the CINS analysis shows, for similar cases of insulting police officers or carrying torches, some were punished with minimal fines and others with imprisonment. Two judges of the Belgrade Misdemeanor Court stood out in terms of sentences, and out of a total of 12 verdicts that CINS had access to, they sentenced protesters to imprisonment in as many as nine.

Igor Šljapić, a student at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, carried a banner at recent protests in Belgrade with the inscription “What will you do when you use up all the tear gas”, expressing dissatisfaction with the large amount of tear gas used by the police in the conflict with the protesters.

His lawyer, Jasmina Belić, told CINS that several people without uniforms approached Šljapić to identify him while he was standing with friends in front of the National Assembly. He was then arrested and taken to the Assembly. Šljapić was very quickly taken to the Misdemeanor Court in Belgrade, which sentenced him to 30 days in prison for swearing at a police officer.

This is just one of 82 misdemeanor proceedings conducted in Belgrade and Novi Sad from July 8th to 15th for insulting and attacking police officers, destroying property and possessing torches at protests in these cities. Most of the detainees received the verdict on the same or the next day.

CINS: Judges do not trust citizens

According to the data that CINS received from the misdemeanor courts, by July 15, 43 convictions and nine acquittals had been passed, while 30 proceedings are in progress.

Slightly less than half of the convictions were handed down on the basis of a statement by police officers because judges decided to trust them rather than defendants who denied insulting police officers or participating in riots.

The court assessed some of the defendants’ defenses as unfounded and planned in advance in order to avoid punishment, while at that time the statements of the police officers were “convincing, logical and impartial”.

Vladica Ilić from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights believes that the fact that someone is an official does not mean that he/she should automatically be trusted more than citizens. He says that we should start from the fact that the officials are telling the truth, but that we should not go over the presumption of innocence lightly.

“The burden of proving the facts on which the existence of the offense depends is on the police, and in the absence of sufficiently clear evidence that would meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence must be valid,” Ilić explained to CINS.

Defendants received drastically different sentences for the same offence

Protesters prosecuted before the misdemeanor courts in Belgrade and Novi Sad were mostly held accountable for violating the Law on Public Order and Peace. Thus, for example, fines of 50 to 150 thousand dinars or imprisonment of up to 60 days are envisaged for insulting officials under this law.

Only the court in the capital sentenced people to prison terms, so out of nine such sentences, which CINS had insight into, seven were handed down by Judge Goran Milutinović, and two by Đuro Pavlica. They ruled in a total of 12 cases, including fines in two cases and acquittals in one. The others were sentenced to 30 to 60 days in prison.

However, the verdicts analyzed by CINS show that defendants received drastically different sentences for the same offence.

Judge Milutinović punished two protesters with completely different punishments for similar curse words directed at police officers. Thus, one protester was punished with 30 days in prison, and the other had to pay a fine of 50 thousand dinars.

However, Pavlica’s and Milutinović’s colleagues from Belgrade punished the protesters convicted of insulting the police only with fines, often within the legal minimum or below that.

Vladica Ilić believes that insulting police officers is considered as inappropriate punishable behavior, but that in such cases, fines are sufficient and that prison sentences are difficult to justify.

“I think that 30 or even up to 60 days in prison for insulting is too severe a punishment, especially in the case of defendants who have not been previously convicted, who said a sentence or two in a protest situation in which the police, by indiscriminate and brutal use of force against citizens, provoked the anger of a large number of them,” Ilić points out.

What is interesting is that in several cases the fines were paid below the legal minimum – it was taken into account that the defendant had not been previously convicted, but this was not applied everywhere.

For example, Judge Đuro Pavlica sentenced one of the defendants to 30 days in prison because the police found a torch and material for Molotov cocktails on him. On the other hand, his colleague from the Misdemeanor Court in Belgrade, Ljiljana Bondžić, fined the other defendant, taking into account that the defendant had not been previously convicted, with only 20 thousand dinars for the three torches found on him.

Protests in early July in Belgrade were also marked by scenes of violence, large quantities of tear gas and numerous arrests, and as CINS wrote, some of the participants were beaten by the police, although they did not cause riots.

The defendants also spoke about the violence of the police during the arrest, but that was not taken into account, nor did the police officers comment on it.

In one verdict, the defendant claims that he was not even at the demonstrations, that he was returning from work and that he did not insult the police officers, but before the arrest they hit him in the head and stomach, knocked him down and took him to the Assembly.

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