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Serbian Krishna Devotee Wins In The European Court of Human Rights
By Krishna-lila Dasi   |  Dec 17, 2010

On December 14th the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Zivota Milanovic in his case against the Republic of Serbia. Zivota Milanovic a member of the Hare Krishna community, was attacked five times between 2001. and 2007. because of his religious beliefs. The assailants beat him with baseball bats, stabbed him, cut his sikha off and engraved a cross onto his head with a knife.

Zivota Milanovic has been a leading member of the Vaishnava Hindu religious community in Serbia, otherwise known as Hare Krishna community, since 1984. In 2000 and 2001 he apparently, began receiving anonymous telephone threats. On one such occasion, he was allegedly told that he would be “burned for spreading his Gypsy faith”.

Later in 2001 he informed the Jagodina Police Department about these threats and expressed his impression that they were made by members of an organization called Srpski vitezovi, a local branch of a better known far-right organization called Obraz.

In September 2001, Zivota was attacked from behind by an unknown man, in front of his relative’s flat in Jagodina, and was hit over the head by what seemed like some sort of a wooden bat.

On 24 September, at approximately 12.30 a.m., he was assaulted once again by one of three unidentified men present. The assailant inflicted several cuts to the Zivota’s head and chest and cut off his pigtail (sikha). On the same day, after having received medical assistance, the he reported the incident to the police.

Next day the police re-interviewed Zivota, who stated that the men who had attacked him a day before had been “big and strong”, but that it had been too dark for him to see anything else. He also recounted the earlier attack, but explained that he had not reported it to the police since he had “not seen his attacker”.

On the same day the police apparently questioned three members of a local skinhead group, but these persons provided them with “no useful information”. On 30 September and 5 October the police interviewed all local school headmasters in an attempt to gather information about the organizations referred to by Zivota. Once again, however, “no useful information” was obtained.

On the evening of 11 July 2005 Zivota suffered another attack. In the proximity of his relative’s flat in Jagodina, one of three unknown youths present stabbed the applicant in his abdomen. The incident was reported to the police by the local hospital, which had provided the applicant with urgent medical care. The police thereafter arrived at the hospital and interviewed him. He described the attack and insisted that it had been religiously motivated.

In July the police apparently visited several locations in an attempt to “identify” the organization called “Srpski vitezovi”, but “no useful information was obtained”. Then they informed the Ministry of Internal Affairs that they had found no evidence that organizations called Srpski vitezovi and Obraz, had ever existed in the Municipality of Jagodina. The police further noted that the applicant was a member of a “religious sect” called Hare Krishna.

Later that month Zivota provided the officers with a copy of the “The Serbian Front” (Srpski front), alleging that the said magazine was published by the nationalist organizations whose members had probably attacked him.

On an unspecified date thereafter, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights addressed the Ministry of Internal Affairs on behalf of Zivota.

On 19 October 2005 the Ministry stated that the local police had indeed failed in their duty to identify the applicant’s assailants. The Ministry, however, promised to do so shortly, and to press charges against the individuals responsible.

On 15 March 2006 Zivota and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights jointly filed a criminal complaint with the District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Jagodina. The complaint referred to the incident of 11 July 2005 and alleged that Zivota had been a victim of a crime called “incitement to ethnic, racial and religious hatred and intolerance” (or, a “hate crime”.)

On 18 June 2006, at approximately 2.30 a.m., Zivota was attacked yet again on the doorstep of his relative’s flat in Jagodina, this time by a lone, unknown assailant, who stabbed him in his abdomen and scratched a crucifix on his head. The applicant stated that his attacker was hooded, some 180 cm tall, wore a dark sweater, and was accompanied by another man. Zivota was taken by taxi to a hospital, where he was provided with medical assistance, and the doctors reported the incident to the police, who immediately conducted an on-site investigation. However, no material evidence was found and no persons fitting Zivota’s description of the attackers were identified.

On 20 July Zivota gave a statement to the police, maintaining that the attack against him had been carried out by a “clero-fascist” organization. In this respect, he invited the police to question the regional head of a political party in Serbia as to whether any of his party’s members were skinheads, as well as to visit a local church where, allegedly, the organization called Obraz “had its premises”.

The police interviewed the local priest, who dismissed the assertion that any extremist organization or informal group had ever had its seat in the church or any of its premises. He further stressed that he had only heard of an organization called Obraz from the media. Two senior members of the local and regional branch of the political party in question told the police that their membership did not include any skinheads or members of Obraz. They further emphasized that Zivota may have been manipulated by other political parties.

On 29 June 2007, at approximately 4.20 a.m., Zivota was assaulted once again. Having opened the door of his relative’s flat in Jagodina to a man who had said that he was from the police, the applicant was stabbed in his chest, hands and legs. The incident was reported to the police by the local hospital, which had provided the applicant with urgent medical care.

The police thereafter arrived at the hospital and interviewed Zivota, who recounted the attack, adding that his assailant had been a big man with a shaved head and had been dressed in dark clothes.

The police subsequently conducted an on-site investigation and searched for the attacker but could not find anyone fitting the description. The police noted that Zivota’s clothes had not been slashed or torn and discovered “no material evidence”.

In July 2007 Zivota and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights jointly filed an additional criminal complaint with the District Public Prosecutor’s Office. The complaint concerned the incident of 29 June 2007 and alleged that Zivota had been a victim of a hate crime, as well as the crime of serious bodily injury.

In response to a complaint sent on behalf of Zivota by the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, in September 2005 the Inspector General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that, as regards the attacks against Zivota, the police had not acted with the necessary diligence. Also, there were numerous media reports, in which the Ministry of Internal Affairs admitted the existence of several extremist and clero-fascist organizations, including Obraz. In the same time, the police advised Zivota not to go out in the evenings since this “clearly provoked” others.

Zivota declared that the police repeatedly seemed more interested in discussing his religious beliefs rather than the incidents in question.

Before making its decision, the European Court of Human Rights consulted with several independent organizations, who conducted studies in Serbia. As the report of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) states in 2008:

“There is a climate of hostility against religious minorities in Serbia. This climate is partly created by certain media outlets and politicians. Members of these groups are also attacked, sometimes by members of neo-Nazi or far-right groups, and their places of worship are vandalized and/or deliberately set on fire. Despite a decrease in the number of these attacks over the past few years, NGOs, some of which have counted between 100 and 150 attacks per year, note that they have become more violent. Religious communities appear reluctant to report these attacks or talk about them publicly. This might be because the police and the judicial apparatus do not always respond appropriately to this problem. Religious communities deplore the fact that few persons are brought to justice for perpetrating these acts and that those found guilty are often only sentenced to a fine.”

The recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights declares that the state of Serbia is responsible for violation of Article 3. of the Convention, according to which no one shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and in relation to that of Article 14, according to which the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

As established through the practice of the Court, during investigation of violent incidents, state authorities are additionally obliged to take all reasonable steps towards determining whether ethnic hatred or prejudices played a role in that. The duty to investigate a potential link between such views and the act of violence is one aspect of procedural obligations on part of the state.

Should the Republic of Serbia not file a motion that the case be presented before the Grand Chamber within three months, this will be the first unappealable ruling by the Court in Strasbourg pursuant to which Serbia is found responsible for violation of the provision on the prohibition of discrimination, set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights.

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