European Western Balkans

Serbian obscure politician’s arrest draws international criticism, but the case remains unclear and confusing

Nikola Sandulović; Photo: Medija centar

The arrest and alleged beating of Serbian politician Nikola Sandulović at the start of 2024 has received significant international attention. In Serbia, by contrast, even the public usually critical of the government has been reluctant to react due to a history of suspicious and bizarre stories involving Sandulović. On 15 January, Sandulović’s lawyer announced that he had been released, but many questions about his case remain unanswered.

At the beginning of January, the Serbian Security and Intelligence Agency (BIA) confirmed it had arrested Sandulović, while the Public Prosecutor’s Office later stated he had been ordered an up to 30-day detention for a “suspected criminal act of causing racial, national, and religious hatred”.

Sandulović was arrested by BIA after he had posted on X on 2 January a video of himself laying flowers on a grave in Prekaze, Kosovo. He wrote that he was “the only politician from Serbia who came to pay his respects to the innocent Albanian victims, the Jashari family”.

The post referred to Adem Jashari, one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and his family, killed by the Serbian police in 1998.

On 4 January, disturbing photos and videos of what appeared to be injured Sandulović were released on X. They were accompanied by claims that he was beaten by BIA members, that he was “poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent”, as stated by his daughter, paralyzed and “nearly dead”.

While state institutions of Serbia have confirmed the arrest of Sandulović, they denied that he was physically harmed. On 11 January, the Public Prosecutror’s Office released a statement, saying that hospital findings showed no physical injuries.

International actors reacted strongly to the case. Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom David Cameron called the reports on Sandulović “extremely concerning”, though he stated that the government had requested more information. A similar message was sent by the EU Spokesman Peter Stano.

The case has received coverage in high-profile media outlets, including the Financial Times and the Guardian, the latter describing Sandulović as an “opposition leader”. The same term was used by the Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti, who met Sandulović last year, and who expressed his concerns over his alleged beating and paralysis in a post on X.

Reactions in Serbia different than those abroad

In Serbia itself, meanwhile, even the media outlets usually critical of the government gave limited coverage to the story. These outlets have continued to focus on the irregularities recorded during the elections on 17 December, which also dominated international news coverage of Serbia until the arrest of Sandulović.

Compared to the international public, therefore, the reactions in Serbia have been subdued. Nemanja Rujević, Deutsche Welle journalist, believes this is because of Sandulović’s public profile.

“I think it’s because Nikola Sandulović is an obscure figure who has distinguished himself with bizarre performances and provocations, a man who only several years ago lied that he was poisoned when he was detained for spreading panic during the pandemic… He is known for trying to attract attention at any cost”, says Rujević for our portal.

The 2020 detention of Sandulović, which Rujević mentions, was similar to the current case. Sandulović was detained in March following a series of Facebook posts in which he claimed that the government was abusing the COVID-19 state of emergency to settle immigrants in Serbia and risking the health of the citizens by using allegedly ineffective tests from China. The police stated that he had been arrested for spreading panic and unrest.

His daughter subsequently accused the authorities of poisoning her father while in prison, a claim that has remained unconfirmed. Sandulović posted on his Facebook profile on 8 April 2020 that he was released after 10 days in custody.

A quite similar situation seems to have happened four years later, in 2024. Sandulović was arrested after a social media post, his family accused the police of torturing him and he was released after 12 days in prison.

These two cases are among the rare occasions Sandulović has been featured in the mainstream media since entering politics about 10 years ago. His usual channel of communication with the public has been social media, but also obscure amateurish-looking websites such as Rich TVX which, in addition to reporting on Sandulović’s activities, also spreads various conspiracy theories.

Sandulović’s political views are also hard to pin down. He supported Donald Trump following the January 6 attack on the United States Congress in 2021 and has shared a caricature of an imprisoned Bill Gates as a way of “stopping the next pandemic”. Meanwhile, he is supporting the independence of Kosovo and entry into NATO, which in Serbia are associated with strongly liberal worldviews.

Information about the case still missing

Even after taking all these aspects into account, it does not mean that Sandulović was justifiably arrested over a single post on X, Nemanja Rujević says.

“We do not know whether he had suffered from brutality, but the media will not push for that information until they receive an official confirmation. The catch-22 in Serbia is that we never get official confirmations of government’s wrongdoings, so this will remain an obscure marginal case”, he concludes.

One of the institutions whose task is to investigate whether there had been torture or not is the Ombudsman, which has not reacted so far, says Milan Antonijević, a lawyer specializing in human rights, for European Western Balkans.

Antonijević urged the Ombudsman and other responsible institutions to determine whether there had been any wrongdoing. He also states that, according to him, there seem to be no elements of the crime with which Sandulović was charged – inciting national hatred.

He also commented on the limited reaction of the domestic public to the case of the alleged police brutality.

“This case is surprising, this is why the reaction of the public is somewhat different. We are not used to it. I remember, during the 1990s, we were taking on cases like this every day in (majority Bosniak-populated) Novi Pazar, where people were going through police torture while being arrested. Such things have not happened in recent years”, Antonijević adds.

“Arrest has nothing to do with everyday politics”

Another aspect of the story that has been hard for the Serbian public to understand is why Sandulović would be perceived as a threat by the ruling party at all. His Republican Party, registered in 2015 as a Hungarian national minority party, ran in elections twice – it won 0.12% in the 2016 parliamentary election and 0.14% in the 2018 Belgrade local election. It did not even take part in 2020, 2022 and 2023 elections.

These election results represent a stark contrast to the descriptions of Sandulović as a leading Serbian politician or an opposition leader, which appeared after his arrest.

Political scientist Ognjen Gogić points out for European Western Balkans that if a politician is arrested without a proper reason, as Sandulović and his supporters claim, it should be assumed that he is a threat to the government.

“Sandulović is not important for the daily political life in Serbia, he is marginal. Even what he did in Kosovo, paying respect to the Jashari family, has no political significance, in the sense that he is threatening the dominant narrative. Nobody would have known that he had done it at all had it not been for the story of his beating”, Gogić says.

He also finds it hard to understand how Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who met with Sandulović in 2023 and expressed his concern after his arrest, can take him seriously and represent him as a “pioneer” of pro-European Serbia.

“I think the arrest of Sanudlović has to do with some things that are not visible on the surface. It is not connected with daily politics”, Gogić emphasizes.

After Sandulović’s release on 15 January, the Serbian public remains unsure why he was arrested at all, and how credible are allegations of police brutality against him. Part of the problem remains the silence of the state institutions, with little signs that this can change.

Nevertheless, one of the aspects of the story that has dominated international coverage – that he represents a serious political challenge or even an alternative to the ruling party – is not taken seriously in Serbia.

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