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Belgrade human rights centre asks for investigation into Serbia's Covid-19 figures

The Serbian president is accused of contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted lockdown ahead of an election.

virus-outbreak-serbia Serbian riot police clashes with protesters in Belgrade, Serbia. Darko Vojinovic via PA Images Darko Vojinovic via PA Images

THE BELGRADE CENTER of Human Rights has filed a request with the Serbian Ombudsman to investigate the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the country.

Doubts have been raised about how the country’s government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic after the country’s president backtracked on his plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown this weekend.

Serbia had one of the strictest lockdowns in place until 6 May, but was then lifted almost completely. A general election was held on 21 June, which was boycotted by much of the main opposition.

On Tuesday, protests broke out in the capital as local reports indicated that the country’s hospitals were under strain and near capacity. Protesters attempted to storm the parliament building, but were pushed back by police.

On Wednesday, President Aleksandar Vučić backtracked on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend, claiming the measure cannot be implemented without proclaiming a nationwide state of emergency.

Vučić said that although he still supports the lockdown, that it would no longer happen and instead, there would be new measures that could include shortened hours for nightclubs and penalties for those not wearing masks.

‘Nothing to do with coronavirus’

He then accused ‘foreign secret services’ to be behind the Tuesday night protests by “right-wing and pro-fascist demonstrators”.

“We will never allow the destabilisation of Serbia from within and abroad,” Vučić said, adding that the protests had “nothing to do with the coronavirus”.

But despite the lockdown policy shift, protests continued last night – with the 50-year-old leader accused of mishandling the Covid-19 crisis.

serbia-virus-outbreak Protesters gather in front of the Serbian parliament in Belgrade, Serbia on Tuesday night. Marko Drobnjakovic Marko Drobnjakovic

The country’s chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, told Serbia’s cable news channel N1 earlier in the day that the protests showed how people felt about the lockdown.

Over the past two nights, scenes of police brutality were captured on television, including an incident on Tuesday in which officers used batons to beat three men sitting peacefully on a bench.

Police chief Vladimir Rebić told state-run Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) that authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured in clashes that lasted for 6 hours.

Questions over Covid-19 figures

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) filed an initiative with the ‘Protector of Citizens’, an ombudsman who investigates claims from citizens about the Serbian government and its institutions, on 24 June.

The request asks for an inspection of the work of the Serbian Ministry of Health, specifically its information system and disclosure of data on the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Serbia.

The BCHR also filed a request with the Serbian Government to provide it with access to the minutes of the Covid-19 Crisis Headquarters sessions, the decision on the establishment of this body, and information about all its members and their functions.

virus-outbreak-serbia Serbian soldiers set up beds for the treatment of possible COVID-19 infected patients inside of the Belgrade Arena. Darko Vojinovic Darko Vojinovic

The BCHR’s requests were prompted by claims that the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths was several times higher than the numbers published officially by the Serbian government.

This followed on from a report from the Balkan Investigative reporting Network (BIRN) that accused Serbia of underreporting cases and deaths related to Covid-19.

It claims that from 19 March to 1 June, a total of 632 people in Serbia who had tested positive for the new coronavirus had died. This is more than twice the official number of 244 deaths for that period.

It also claims that at least 300 people per day were infected between 17-20 June, three days before the country’s election, while official figures show that the highest number of cases in any one day was 97.

Any concealment of data regarding public health in Serbia is illegal, the BCHR stressed.

Response from Vučić 

virus-outbreak-serbia Serbia's president has announced the reintroduction of a curfew in Serbia on 7 June. Darko Vojinovic Darko Vojinovic

But in an interview with RTS, Vučić said he was “completely sure that they [the data BIRN published] are not authentic”.

The country’s total number of Covid-19 cases is 17,076, with 341 deaths, according to official figures. The Serbian population is around 8.7 million; around 53,130 tests per million people have been carried out.

Today, Vučić said that the protests were carried out by “hooligans”, and it has “harm[ed] Serbia’s image” at a time when he is under pressure to relaunch talks to normalise ties with Kosovo, a former province that broke away in a 1990s war.

The former foes will come together in Brussels on Sunday, with plans to reboot a European Union-brokered dialogue, which has been frozen for more than a year.

Rights groups have accused Vučić of amassing autocratic rule over Serbia during his nearly eight years in power, first as prime minister and now as president.

- with reporting from AFP

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