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Serbia Arrests 11 Foreign Human Rights Activists Ahead of Protest

A similar group of activists staged a protest near Downing Street to condemn the persecution of Falun Gong activists in China. Photo by Demotix, 17 June 2014.

A similar group of activists staged a protest near Downing Street in London on 17 June 2014 to condemn the persecution of Falun Gong activists in China. Photo by Reporter#19616. Copyright Demotix

Eleven human rights activists from Bulgaria, Finland and Slovakia who were planning to protest in Serbia were arrested on December 14 and 15 and are being detained in an undisclosed location outside of Belgrade by the country's authorities, according to reports. 

In a public statement on December 17, Amnesty International demanded their release and explained:

The individuals, who had reportedly travelled to Serbia to participate in peaceful demonstrations against the Chinese authorities’ actions towards Falun Gong practitioners during a summit of leaders from Central Eastern Europe and China in the capital Belgrade, were taken from their hotels by police and detained. […]

Amnesty International is concerned that the Serbian authorities are acting unlawfully, and urges them to immediately end any detention based solely on the persons’ intention to exercise their right to peaceful assembly.

Practitioners of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual discipline, have been persecuted in China since 1999. A 2000 Amnesty International report describes methods employed by the Chinese government to crack down on Falun Gong and similar groups, including intricate media campaigns, forced ideological conversion, arrests, forced labor, and torture, sometimes resulting in death and illegal organ harvesting from the victims. 

The peaceful protests planned in Belgrade by this particular international group of Falun Gong activists were allegedly to coincide with the high profile CEE-China Summit held in Belgrade on December 16 and 17, 2014. This is the third edition of this summit, during which 16 leaders from former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe and communist leaders from China meet to discuss economic collaboration.

By some accounts of the story, nine of the activists were detained on Sunday, December 14, another two were arrested later, and at least two more individuals with ties to the group were banned from entering the country upon arrival at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla International Airport. Due to very little information available in the media or online, the facts of the case are still unclear however. Amnesty International's statement provides some details about one of the detained activists:

One of those detained, Lihua Lan, a Finnish citizen, was allowed to enter Serbia, but was subsequently arrested at her hotel on 15 December, and taken to the Detention Removal Centre at Padinska skela. She was informed that she would not be released to leave the country until at least this Friday, the date of her return flight. While Amnesty International understands she was in possession of the necessary travel documents, she, as well as nine Bulgarian and one Slovak national, was held under Article 49 of the Law on Foreigners, which provides for detention until deportation for “A foreigner who cannot be forcibly removed immediately or a foreigner whose identity has not been ascertained or who does not possess a travel document”.

Some local independent news sites and bloggers have covered the story, calling into question the legality of the actions of Serbian authorities. Independent news site OzonPress.net from Čačak reported in an article that authorities had banned the activists’ planned protest:

… Četiri uredno prijavljena skupa koja su ovim povodom trebalo da se održe na Trgu Republike u Beogradu ovih dana, pre dva dana su zabranjeni su od strane policije na nezakonit način i bez navođenja razloga, a prijavljivač skupa je podneo žalbu.

Sinoć, nešto pre 23 časa, beogradska policija je uhapsila 9 praktikanata Falun Gonga iz Bugarske, koji su se nalazili u hostelu u kojem su bili smešteni. Niko od njih nikada nije imao problema sa zakonom, a poznato je da su skupovi Falun Gong praktikanata uvek mirni i u skladu sa zakonom.

Policija nije dala razlog za hapšenje, a prema posljednjim nezvaničnim informacijama iz bugarske ambasade, ovih devet osoba se nalazi pritvoreno negdje izvan Beograda.

… Four neatly registered gatherings that were supposed to take place on Republic Square in Belgrade these days were banned two days ago by police in an illegal manner and without any given reason, while the organizer of the gatherings appealed [the decision].

Last night, sometime before 11 p.m., Belgrade police arrested nine practitioners of Falun Gong from Bulgaria, who were located at the hostel where they were staying. None of them had ever had problems with authorities before and it is common knowledge that Falun Gong gatherings are always peaceful and in line with the law.

The police has not given any reason for the arrests and, according to the latest unofficial information from the Bulgarian Embassy, these nine individuals are being detained somewhere outside of Belgrade.

According to a news report on the official site of the International Coalition to End Organ Pillaging in China, a coalition of lawyers, medical professionals, and human rights advocates dedicated to ending organ trafficking in China, the activists are being detained “provisionally” by Serbian authorities. Unofficial information has also implied that the activists might be facing deportation from the country, although no one has stated whether or not they may have broken any Serbian or international laws, nor exactly what the reasons for their detainment might be.

Serbian national and mainstream media have largely ignored the case, and those outlets that did cover it offered scant reporting. The online edition of Blic daily, owned by Swiss Ringier AG media corporation, mentions the case in a short article titled “Awkward Questions for Minister [for EU Integrations] Joksimović: Why Were Six EU Activists Arrested in Belgrade” (the number of activists detained in Belgrade at the time of publishing was, in fact, eleven).

The website of the largest Serbian national news network B92 only mentions the matter from a EU-related standpoint in an article about Minister Jadranka Joksimović's statements on EU accession terms for Serbia.

While state-operated national news agency Tanjug published a news wire on the matter, titled “Activists Who Wanted to Protest Detained?”, the agency only managed to get this answer from Minister Joksimović on the matter:

“Obaveštena sam o toj neprijatnoj situaciji, ali još ne znamo sve činjenice”, rekla je Joksimović, odgovarajući na novinarsko pitanje tokom konferencije za medije u Briselu.

“I have been informed of this unfortunate situation, but we still don't know all the facts,” Joksimović said, in response to a journalist's question during a press conference in Brussels.

The facts of the case remain unclear. Serbian NGO Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM) have requested that “the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Justice provide information about the procedures against those detained”.

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