Repression in Serbia: Free the Belgrade Six

Serbia's bid to join the EU, formally delivered towards the end of last month, has been favourably looked on by the powers that be, with the main question being whether privatisation of the country's assets is proceeding in good time. In human rights terms, EU mandarins are mostly very pleased, with the only sticking point being the extradition of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic for crimes against humanity during the Bosnian war. But for many living in the region, the human rights discussion over EU membership should not revolve around Serbia's attitude to capturing the last two genocide suspects of 1992-5. Its increasingly worrying behaviour now is more important.

The case of the Belgrade Six, who have just spent their fourth month in prison awaiting trial for alleged "international terrorism," is a case in point. In the early hours of August 24 2009, a group of radicals sneaked up to Number 33 Francuska, Belgrade. Hidden by the dark, they prepared two Molotov cocktails, which were then hurled towards the empty Greek embassy. The damage done was minimal, a few scorch marks up the side of the building and a broken window were all that was visible the next morning and the embassy opened as usual. Insurrectionary anarchist group Black Ilja claimed responsibility shortly afterwards, saying they were acting in solidarity with imprisoned Greek hunger striker Todoris Iliopulos.

In Greece itself the event would have barely registered. The reaction of Serbia's leading politicians and media groups however was extreme. Serbia's President Boris Tadic declared the incident to be an example of international terrorism. His public announcement was closely followed by a media frenzy over the rise of extremism in the country, which widely publicised calls for the "neutralisation" of left-wing elements.

Under such pressure, police made six arrests on September 3-4, not of Black Ilja, but of members and friends from the Anarcho Syndicalist Initiative (ASI), which was alleged to be connected to the incident by virtue of its political outlook. Initially charged with "causing general public danger," Ratibor Trivunac, Tadej Kurepa, Ivan Vulovic, Sanja Dokic, Ivan Savic and Nikola Mitrovic spent three months in jail while waiting for their trial before being formally indicted on December 7.

At the indictment, their alleged crimes were upgraded and the six now face between three and 15 years in prison each on charges of "international terrorism." Critics point out that this would be more than double the sentence which was handed down for the burning to the ground of the US embassy in Belgrade in 2008.

The case and its surrounding context have fuelled fears both inside and outside Serbia that the state is failing to live up to its billing as a modern democracy and is instead trying to bury left-wing dissent through draconian means. Academics at Belgrade University have condemned the trial, writing in an open letter: "We fear that this was an arbitrary interpretation of the Criminal Code and a case of its use for political purposes.

"Just in the year 2009 we have witnessed the escalation of violence (as a consequence one foreign citizen was killed) and numerous threats of violence made by fascist groups. All of this was met with a mild reaction from the state prosecution and the police.

"To name just one example: in the days leading up to the Belgrade Gay Pride Parade (set for September 20, subsequently called off due to security fears) the threats of physically liquidating the gay population were called just 'polemics' by a representative of the state."

Events surrounding the parade included a number of vicious beatings of foreigners or anyone characterised as "different" and a fascist attack on a news conference, leading to international condemnation of the state's unwillingness to confront far-right violence.

The International Workers Association (IWA), to which the ASI is affiliated, has held over 40 demonstrations across 16 countries in protest against the Belgrade Six arrests, noting in an official statement: "ASI first found out about the attack on the Greek embassy and of the organisation that took the responsibility for this act through the media. We would use this opportunity to remind the public once again that these methods of individual political struggle are not the methods of anarcho-syndicalism - quite the contrary. We proclaim our political positions publicly and through our work we seek to bring the masses to the syndicalist movement and all the libertarian and progressive organisations. It is clear that this state-produced farce is just one way of intimidating anyone who decides to point out the injustice and hopelessness of contemporary society."

Serbia's political class is uniquely vulnerable to pressure over human rights as it positions itself for EU membership and such pressure is vital. Our newest citizens must be free to express their life choices and politics as we enter the new decade.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star under the heading “Rights must be part of EU deal”