On Tuesday, April 11, 2023, a guilty verdict was delivered in the last criminal case against Aladin Paučinac, an activist who led protests against the health authorities in the Serbian city of Novi Pazar due to their mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paučinac was convicted of criminal insult and has been ordered to pay a 250,000 RSD fine, as well as court and attorney’s fees. His lawyer stated that the verdict is “unjust” and goes against “European standards, as well as standards guaranteed by the Serbian Constitution”. She further announced that they would appeal the verdict.
The director of the General Hospital in the city, Meho Mahmutović, who previously served as mayor of Novi Pazar in two terms, has filed 9 defamation lawsuits against Paučinac – some civil, some as a private criminal prosecution, which Serbian law allows for – due to comments made on social networks and at protests, all of them criticizing Mahmutović’s handling of the health crisis in the city at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
The proceedings based on these lawsuits have been highly irregular, with the acting judge refusing to consider any evidence proposed by the defense, including the fact that the accused is a human rights activist, and court practice affirming the right to criticize public officials. The lawyer representing Paučinac on behalf of prominent Serbian NGO Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights has initiated three urgent appeals in front of the Constitutional Court in Serbia, but has not received any response a year on. Based on judgements rendered so far, Paučinac is liable to pay over 750,000 RSD in court fees, fines and damages, with other judgements pending which carry similarly high costs. As he is unable to pay, there is a real threat of the fines being substituted for imprisonment.
In July 2020, prompted by a lack of transparency and the increase in infection and mortality rates from COVID-19, as well as reports of a shortage of protective equipment and deteriorating conditions at the city’s health facilities, a group of citizens started gathering daily in front of the General Hospital in Novi Pazar, demanding the resignations of the acting director and his closest associates. These protests continued for over one hundred days. Additionally, several dozen specialists employed by the hospital signed a petition asking the Ministry of Health to remove Mahmutović from his position, citing his poor handling of the pandemic.
While authorities refused to divulge the true extent of the health crisis, social media became flooded with posts from disgruntled citizens, who created Facebook groups where they discussed the hospital administration. The exact number of casualties remains unknown to this day, but research has since shown that, on July 1, 2020, when the protests began, Novi Pazar was the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in Europe. As of the same date, Novi Pazar had a 300% higher mortality rate compared to the previous year, a rate almost ten times higher than the rest of Serbia.
In response to the swell of public criticism against him, the director of the General Hospital in Novi Pazar, Meho Mahmutović, has filed a total of 37 private civil and criminal lawsuits against activists, citizens, fellow doctors, and even one patient who spoke out against his handling of the COVID-19 epidemic and demanded his dismissal.
The case against Aladin Paučinac represents a stark example of the worrying trend of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) in Serbia, which are initiated with the aim of suppressing freedom of expression and limiting public criticism. In view of this, Serbia was nominated for the SLAPP Country of the Year by the Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) in 2022, as one of the countries providing the most favorable conditions for abusive lawsuits against those speaking out in the public interest.