Arrests, fines, beatings: Joint Action Roof Over Your Head – a thorn in whose side?

Photo: Združena akcija Krov nad glavom (Joint Action Roof Over Your Head) / Facebook

Solidarity is a tool of defence against systemic repression. Law on enforcement and security interest is just another name for criminalisation of solidarity.

The right to adequate housing is a human right guaranteed by international conventions which the legal order of Serbia formally conforms to. However, every fifth person in the world and every tenth person in Serbia fears the loss of roof over their head. The importance of housing conditions has risen during the pandemic, since home isolation is one of the main measures against the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, forced evictions of people from their only homes have continued even during the pandemic, and activists fighting the evictions are still under attack by bailiffs, creditors, and – last but not least – the state.

Forced evictions and resistance

Although the state is legally obliged to facilitate enjoyment of the right to adequate housing, when it comes to forced evictions Republic of Serbia gives priority to the protection of the institution of private property over the protection of the right to housing. What exactly does this mean?

According to the Law on Enforcement and Security Interest (in Serbian: Zakonu o izvršenju i obezbeđenju, or ZIO), a creditor is allowed to force the sale of immovable property in which the debtor lives to satisfy the debt, regardless of whether real estate in question is the debtor’s only home. In other words, people can be forced into homeless in accordance with the law. At the same time, the state doesn’t provide alternative accommodation to victims of evictions, and social housing programs in Serbia are underdeveloped. Such a setting suits the creditors, while being primarily hostile for small debtors, victims of real estate fraud, workers of privatized companies, refugees and other economically vulnerable individuals and families.

Forced evictions are challenged but by a small group of activists and solidary citizens belonging to the Joint Action “Roof Over Your Head”. The Roof has been active in Belgrade and Novi Sad since 2017, and in Subotica since 2019.

Members of the Roof suffer various pressures and attacks: financial pressure through fines, unprofessional and unlawful police conduct during evictions, physical assaults followed by inefficiency on the part of the police, who seems reluctant to find the perpetrators of the attacks; the recent jailing of the Roof’s activists at anti-regime protests stands out as a special type of intimidation tactics.

Fines – away from the public eye

The amendments to the ZIO, which came into force on January 1st this year, provide for the possibility of imposing high fines on anyone who obstructs or prevents debt enforcement. Activists of the Roof have been fined before – what is different now is that the prevention of evictions itself has become punishable.

In addition, the ZIO stipulates that enforcement agents – who are essentially profit-motivated entrepreneurs – can suggest the court who to penalize. In this way, private persons are given control over activism.

The new legal possibilities have already been put into practice. A few weeks ago, a court imposed a fine on three activists of the Roof at the suggestion of a bailiff, although none of the three of them was even present at the forced eviction they had allegedly obstructed. The court did not ask the bailiff for evidence that the activists had violated the law.

Fines are an effective way to stifle activism, because they go unnoticed and do not create negative publicity for the state. An activist of the Roof who wished to remain anonymous, stated:

The most efficient way to prevent people from joining [anti-eviction activities] is to threaten them with high fines. That won’t show in those attractive Facebook clips presenting people in conflict with the police. That situation is obvious and simple: citizens on the one side, a police cordon on the other, a debt collector here, poor people there, that speaks for itself. A fine, on the other hand, is out of sight – out of mind.

Police in bailiff’s service

The ZIO authorizes the police to use force, on their own initiative or at the request of the bailiff, against anyone who obstructs or prevents an eviction, regardless of whether they violate public order or not. Thus, police officers – who according to the Law on Police have a duty to serve the citizens and the community – are being formally placed in service of bailiffs and creditors.

According to the Roof’s activists’ testimonies, police officers who take part in forced evictions often break the law or act unprofessionally – from refusing to identify themselves, through restricting activists’ freedom of movement, to sexually harassing and threatening the activists and using excessive force.

In June 2019, two Roof’s activists from Novi Sad were beaten up with “brass knuckles” and metal bars. One of them was seriously injured in the incident. The police haven’t to this day identified the attackers, who are suspected by activists to have been hired by one of the bailiffs. According to a beaten activist, the police dragged the case and intimidated the activists:

They worked to dissuade us from a lineup: they told us that if we identified the attackers falsely during a lineup, those people could file criminal charges against us later.

The inefficiency of the police in dealing with such cases compromises activists’ safety. It also speaks volumes of the state’s hostile attitude towards activism.

Another indicator of the government’s attitude towards the Roof is a recent incident in which the police initiated misdemeanour proceedings against an activist whom they’ve accused of participating in a fight, although there is a video which clearly testifies to the fact that the activist was actually physically attacked by a creditor.

Arrests at protests

Attacks on the Roof’s activists continued during the anti-regime protests that spread throughout Serbia in the second week of July. The protests will be remembered for police brutality. While dozens of demonstrators suffered bodily injuries, according to unofficial information, over a hundred citizens were arrested. Among those arrested were four activists of the Roof – Miran Pogačar from Novi Sad and Vladimir Mentus, Igor Šljapić and Mario Marković from Belgrade.

Miran Pogačar is one of the people who led the protest in Novi Sad, which you could read about in Mašina. Pogačar was arrested by the police after the protest, held in custody for 48 hours, and accused of the criminal act of violent behaviour – although there are recordings that deny that. It’s important to mention that Miran was arrested after he had publicly read protesters’ demands and gave a statement for N1 television. On that occasion he mentioned vandals who took part in the protest and speculated that they acted as pawns of the ruling party. He was later released on his own recognizance.

My arrest is directly related to the protest, but I am confident that the main reason for the arrest is my previous activities and political work. […] They accused me of acting violently in an attempt to label me a bully, said Miran Pogačar.

At the time of his arrest, police officers were fair to him. Pogačar connects that to the fact that he was leading the protest, and that he is known to the public as an activist.

They knew that if they attacked me physically, they would have to deal with public condemnation, so they would dig their own hole, he said.

On the other hand, Miran believes that the arrests of the Roof’s activists in Belgrade were random, that the police didn’t know whom they arrested, and that that is why they treated them far more brutally – as they did many other anonymous protesters.

The three activists from Belgrade were arrested on the sixth day of the protest. Šljapić and Mentus caused no incidents at the protest. Marković didn’t even participate in the rally. All three were accused of insulting the police, and Mentus was beaten by police officers during his arrest. A misdemeanour courts sentenced Šljapić and Mentus to thirty days in prison, preventing him to exercise his right to an attorney. Moreover, the only witnesses in the procedure were the police officers who arrested them. Their right to a fair trial was thus violated.

What purpose do the arrests and other types of pressure serve?

All four cases, no matter how much they might vary between themselves – in type of acts for which the activists are charged, in ways police officers and court officials acted, and in the circumstances of the arrests – indicate the attitude of the authorities towards the protesters. The goal of these arrests, even if they all end with acquittals, is to intimidate activists who criticize the regime. As pointed out at the protests the Roof held in front of the Central prison in Belgrade, the jailed activists are in fact political prisoners – people deprived of their freedom on account of their political views and critical attitude towards the government.

Beating and jailing of non-violent activists followed by protest in front of Belgrade Central Prison; “Stop the Violence”; activist Igor Šljapić protesting in Belgrade ; Poto: Nemanja Pančić / Kamerades

The conduct of the courts in many of the cases gives reason for concern. If the word of the activist is against the word of the police officer, the court will trust the police officer “because he doesn’t have a reason to lie”. Even when recordings of disputed events exist – both from protests and evictions – courts give priority to police officers’ statements that contradict the video evidence. Such acts do not only openly belittle the activists, but also undermine societal trust in the legal system, which further intimidates and discourages people from getting involved in various activist initiatives.

The urgency with which the courts act in punishing those who insulted police officers is striking, especially when contrasted to the cases of dozens of activists and journalists who do not only suffer insults on an almost daily basis, but also face threats that, as a rule, remain unprocessed.

It seems that most of those who did cause riots at the July protests will remain unprocessed. As Miran Pogačar points out, in Novi Sad, plainclothes police officers kept to the side and calmly watched the vandals disturbing public order; the rioters who, according to him, are controlled by the SNS.

Although the Serbian President characterized these protests as ultra-rightist, the fact that the left-wing activists were subjected to arrests and police brutality deny that. It is also obvious that Vučić’s addressed his “Western partners” in that “clarification”, given that his regime doesn’t have a problem with ultra-right groups, and controls and uses many of them according to its needs – which was undoubtedly the case at these protests as well.

Through arrests at protests, fines, non-prosecution of physical attacks and violations of activists’ rights, the state is sending a message to people gathered in the Joint Action Roof Over Your Head that it would be better for them to give up. The suffocation of the activism of this collective should be understood as part of a broader trend of the regime’s reckoning with activists and NGOs, but also as part of neoliberal reforms, class stratification and the processes of putting public institutions at the service of private interests – those of the creditors, bailiffs, and, crucially, political parties and individuals in power.

We have yet to face the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis in the months ahead. It is almost certain that a new wave of protests and social revolt will follow in the fall. With that in mind, what happened during the July protests can be interpreted as a kind of warning addressed at the activists and an announcement by the regime that it will not hesitate to use open force.

As the protests in front of the prison showed, after which the activists were released, public pressure and the most massive solidarity with the endangered are the best resistance to repression.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

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