On July 10, 2015, a commemoration ceremony was held in Potocari, a small village in eastern Bosnia, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. Citizens also gathered in Belgrade to observe the anniversary, lighting candles in Pionirski Park in honor of those killed. The impromptu event in the Serbian capital took place despite the forced cancellation of a previously announced gathering, which had been given the title ‘Sedam hiljada,’ (‘Seven thousand’ — the approximate number of Srebrenica victims who have been identified to date). Seven months later, the director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Belgrade, Anita Mitic, finds herself facing criminal charges for a violation of the Law on Public Gatherings due to her role in the commemoration.
These charges have caused wide ranging controversy. First there is a question on the law itself. The Law on Public Gatherings, passed in 2009, was declared unconstitutional in April 2015 and found itself in a legal vacuum until October 2015. The updated version for 2016 seems more draconian than ever.
Then there was the content of the letter sent to Mitic, outlining the criminal charges against her, which she has made public. In it, the word genocide was put in quotation marks, something the YIHR have labelled as scandalous, and has raised more questions about the Serbian state’s relationship with its history.
“The prime minister shouldn’t go to Srebrenica for a commemoration, but [then] ban a commemorative gathering in Belgrade,” Mitic told K2.0. “Facing the past must begin in Belgrade. Politicians need to face their responsibilities and secure a space in Serbia dedicated to speaking about Srebrenica, and other crimes committed in the name of Serbia.”
As well as the peaceful gathering of a few non-governmental organizations and citizens, July 10 also saw right-wing organizations demonstrating. The demonstration featured salutes to the accused perpetrators of the genocide Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, Chetnik chants being sung and a banner displaying the message “Serbs are victims of genocide. Stop lying about Srebrenica.” Anita Mitic is the only person who has been charged for activities relating to public gatherings on July 10.
“The Serbian Radical Party, headed by Vojislav Seselj, and the Srpski sabor Zavetnici (Serbian patriotic movement) were trying to attack us during the commemoration,” said Mitic. “They threw bottles at us, they threatened us, insulted us, etc. Charges weren’t brought against any of them for their violent behavior, which I think says a lot about their relationship with the state.”
Anita Mitic was one of many people who invited friends on Facebook to join the commemoration on July 10. On the basis of inviting people on social networks, Mitic was characterized as the organizer of a public gathering which was not reported to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and charged.
Mitic gave K2.0 her reaction to this decision: “This gathering was a reaction to the ban. If the police had not banned Sedam hiljada, we would have had no reason to gather without reporting it to the authorities. The charges were brought against me, because I was seen as the ‘organizer’ of the event. I was also on record, as I gave a routine statement to the police after the gathering. However, it is important to point out that the police identified me as the organizer only because I invited people from my personal Facebook profile. Of course, many people did the same, but only I received criminal charges.”
On the day Mitic’s hearing took place, February 3, 2016, prominent NGO representatives and citizens gathered in front of the Constitutional Court in Belgrade in a sign of solidarity with Mitic. Some carried a banner reading “It wasn’t her, but me.” The message was clear; Mitic was at the hearing as a representative of all citizens who, on the night of July 10, felt the need to express sorrow for the victims from 1995.
The Constitutional Court’s police prevented citizens and the media from attending the hearing, which was then postponed in order for the judges to become better acquainted with the Constitutional Court’s previous decision on annulling the Law on Public Gatherings. So far, the case remains unresolved, and a new hearing has not been scheduled.
The criminal charges raised against Anita Mitic have opened up issues relating to the adoption of the new Law on Public Gatherings, which passed on January 26, 2016. In a draft law published in December 2015, Article 13 stated that a ‘spontaneous gathering’ is permitted, and was defined as a “peaceful gathering, without any organizers, as a direct reaction to a specific event, after the event, which is conducted in an open or a closed space, in order to express opinions and attitudes regarding the event.”
On January 13, the YIHR had released proposals for amendments to the draft law, and requested a precise definition of the terms ‘spontaneous gathering’ and ‘organizing a counter-gathering’ as a legitimate democratic means. Representatives from the YIHR also drew attention to the fact that a spontaneous gathering cannot take place without organizers, or inviting people to a gathering, since the meaning of the gathering would then be lost.
K2.0 spoke to the director of the Institute for European Affairs (IEA) NGO, Naim Leo Besiri, on the new Law on Public Gatherings. Besiri outlined several reasons that the new law is making public gathering ever trickier, including high fines for organizers, the poor definition of ‘spontaneous’ gatherings, and a tighter limit on the places at which a gathering can take place. Besiri drew particular attention to the enormous fines which are somewhere between 70 and 150 thousand RSD (around 570 - 1,220 euros). In a country where 50 percent of young people are unemployed, and the average salary is 300 euros, this law can only discourage any form of citizens’ gathering.
“When you take a look at the law, you can see that it has seven more Articles than the previous law, but is somehow less precise,” said Besiri. “However, the new Law is precise when it comes to fines. They are many times larger in comparison to the previous law. Serbia has been lacking the courage to organize public events for a long time. Now, courtesy of the new law, organizers will also need deep pockets, good lawyers, great legal advisers and loud megaphones in order for someone to be able to hear them.”
Ignorance, denial or approval of genocide in Srebrenica?
Anita Mitic was born in 1990; the beginning of the decade that saw a boom of nationalism in Serbia and the entire former Yugoslavia flare up. This is the generation that grew up with the war in Bosnia, the war in Kosovo, turbo folk, criminals, sanctions, and power cuts.
However, as the director of YIHR she belongs to a part of the younger generation in Serbia that is loudly speaking out about war crimes. She is ready to influence other young people in order to create a new, conscious generation determined not to repeat the past.
On the basis of her years of activism and work in the civic sector, Mitic believes that the younger generation’s proclivity towards right wing movements and nationalism is not solely down to the circumstances of the decade that shaped them, they are assisted by the current politics of the Serbian state.
“Unfortunately, the youth in Serbia are primarily misinformed, and disinterested,” said Mitic. “It is sad to see the majority of young people in Serbia turning towards right-wing and nationalist organizations. Their values are completely distorted. Somebody might say that this is happening because of the surroundings in which they grew up, but I don’t think this is right, it is just an excuse. I was born in 1990 and grew up in the same surroundings, and today I fight for human rights and the truth about the war. I think that young people in Serbia are intentionally misused, because such people suit the political elite perfectly. Disregarding the facts that young people today are more conservative than their parents and hate their neighbors will lead us to a point where we will miss out on the chance to make good grown-ups, good adults.”
Naim Leo Besiri, as president of the IEA, has been actively working on the reconciliation process among the younger generations from Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Besiri identified schooling as the biggest problem, suggesting that school textbooks do not offer plurality of information or ideas on regional reconciliation.
“School textbooks are very questionable, above all because of what is taught in history classes, and the way in which the teaching is taking place in schools and colleges when they deal with the topic of reconciliation and war crimes,” he said. “The politicization and relativization of events, contradictory statements and acts from politicians, and poor media ethics are conducive to maintaining social confusion from which young people are not immune. When you add on top of all this, the non-existence of responsibility and personal integrity, you then get a social climate in which every difference and different opinion is being condemned, and ethnic and religious hatred are being supported, while war crimes are also given support.”
Mitic also views the dominant political discourse when it comes to war criminals as damaging to future generations. “Politicians aren’t ready to accept responsibility and face the past, so why would we expect such a thing from our young people. Who should they follow? Who should their role model be? The cowardice of our politicians is the worst possible influence on our young people.”
In the end, there is still a small number of those, like Mitic, who have decided to critically observe the past, as well as the current political situation, and to engage themselves with society accordingly. If it were not for these defenders of human rights and justice, there would hardly be any democratic advances in Serbian society.
“As for myself,” concluded Mitic, “I will fight for the truth by all means necessary, no matter the bans or the criminal charges, in this year and in every other year.”
This article was originally written in Serbian.