intreview 01 Feb 17

Serbian Youth Initiative Chief Blames State for Attacks

The director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Anita Mitic, accused the Serbian state of being complicit in the series of recent attacks on the rights organisation.

Maja Zivanovic
BIRN
Belgrade

Anita Mitic . Photo: Media Center Serbia.

The director of  the Serbian rights group Youth Initiative for Human Rights, YIHR, Anita Mitic, told BIRN on Tuesday that state institutions had treated activists shamefully following an incident two weeks ago, when members of YIHR were attacked at an events of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS.

The incident happened on January 17 in the town of Beska in northern Serbia, when activists protested about the speaker, the war-crimes convict Veselin Sljivancanin.

YIHR members were assaulted after they interrupted Sljivancanin's speach, unfurled a banner reading, "May War Criminals Fall Silent and Victims Speak Out", and whistled as he spoke.

Attacks on the organisation continued on Sunday, when a group of young men left bags of fake paper money and stickers with messages reading "foreign mercenaries" in front of the YIHR office.

A group calling itself "Alternativa" took responsibility for this act, the daily Danas reported on Monday.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, the front page article of the tabloid Informer, considered close to the Progressive Party, accused Mitic of having received more than a million euros to "make chaos in Serbia".

Mitic told BIRN that the inaction of the Serbian authorities had given legitimacy to those that attacked them.

"It's become OK to beat up every political opponent [of the government] because no one from state institutions has convicted anyone for the assaults on us," she said.

Commenting on the incident in Beksa, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said he did not justify any acts of violence but accused an "assault group" from the YIHR of interrupting the event there.

Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanovic said after the incident that violence would not be tolerated from anyone - "neither from members of the Democratic Party, nor of the Serbian Progressive Party, nor by NGOs". Mayor of Indjija Vladimir Gak, however, said he did exclude the idea that the activists had hurt themselves.

"It is shame how the state institutions treated us. In particular I refer to Minister Stefanovic, the Mayor of Indjija, but also to the Prime Minister, Vucic," Mitic said.

Mitic said attempted lynches and moves to discredit them would not frighten them.

"This is not a fight with Informer or with [editor-in-chief Dragan] Vucicevic. This is a fight against a system of values that sullies the reputation of this country and which is fatal for future generations," she said.

She added that if Serbia cannot prevent the repetition of history and the relativization of war crimes, future generations will have no chance to grow up in a normal society.

"It is not the fault of me or of YIHR that this is happening. This is due to the rotten system, and all people who can think and are independent are going through this as well," she said.

Mitic said the situation was sad and humiliating for the citizens of Serbia, and she feared for the safety of activists from YIHR.

"There has been no reaction from the prosecution to a single event so far ... There are no institutions that citizens who are targeted in this way can turn to," she said.

Asked whether the SNS should have distanced itself from war-crime convicts, Mitic said that if Serbia's ruling party wants to be what it says it is - a democratic, pro-European party, it will have to distance itself from war criminals.

"It is not only our expectations of them, it is a necessity - to decide in which direction Serbia is heading. You can't sit on two chairs and think that it is OK to go to Davos and, on the other hand, to fight against human rights activists," she said.

Commenting on the frequently used phrase "foreign mercenaries" for Serbian activists and NGOs, Mitic called it a "worn-out phrase" that no longer has any meaning.

"Each of us files reports on what we did in our projects and where we spend the money. We pay taxes in this country, we hire young people, and we advocate reconciliation. We don't have to justify [to the SNS] the money that we get," Mitic said.

She added she would like YIHR to get money from Serbia, but claimed that all the money that is given to the non-governmental sector in effect goes to party-linked organizations.

"Let them call us mercenaries, if that makes it easy for them. We all know that we are not," she concluded.

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