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SLOVENIA: Government claims 34,000 EUR from a protester for policing costs

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One of the figureheads of the Friday cycling protests was the target of a major repressive measure. He received a call for payment of EUR 34,340.56 in policing costs from the State Attorney on behalf of the Interior Ministry in relation to the protest held on 19 June 2020.

On 19 June 2020, in Ljubljana, several dozen protesters, including Jaša Jenull, sat on the ground of the Republic Square to demonstrate against the restriction of freedom of expression and association by reading the Constitution aloud. The police intervened and dragged out protestors refusing to leave the square. The government believes that the non-registration of the organised rally caused damages because the state had to provide police protection. On this basis, Mr. Jenull is believed to be one of the organisers and therefore is being requested to reimburse the policing costs.

Prior to this drastic claim, Mr. Jenull had received in January 2022, a lawsuit for EUR 2,255.42 policing costs for the protest held on 2 October 2020, and in February 2022 a lawsuit was filed against him for EUR 3,778.12 in policing costs for the protest held on 4 September 2020. Moreover, since the beginning of the anti-government protests in March 2020, Mr. Jenull has received more than 20 fines by the police for misdemeanours.

This shows a broader trend of legal obstacles utilised by the government to limit freedom of protest and association.

Indeed, these lawsuits follow the statement of the Police Director General Mr. Dušan Olaj at the meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Internal Affairs and the Committee on Justice, on 4 October 2021, in which he said that the police had submitted evidence of policing costs for “unregistered protests” for a total of EUR 972,166 for civil compensation. At the meeting, the Attorney General Mr. Jurij Groznik announced that there would be ten lawsuits similar to the one Mr. Jenull is threated with.

The Legal Network for Democracy Protection, provided an insightful analysis and concluded that there is no legal basis for such proceedings against Mr. Jenull.

Firstly, most anti-government protests since March 2020 have been spontaneous, unorganised rallies. Therefore, these protests do not have an organiser as defined by the applicable law on public assembly. The commentary to this law clarifies that the one who supports participation in the rally, invites and gives instructions for the implementation of the rally is not the organiser of the rally, but only the initiator. If we followed the Ministry of the Interior’s understanding of organised rallies, the Legal Network explains, it would mean that spontaneous rallies do not exist, because before each protest, someone somewhere decides that he or she wants to speak together with others. Therefore, the definition of the organiser is not related to whether someone called for a protest, held a microphone on it and directed people, but to whose interest the rally was held. The Public Assembly Act contains a very precise definition of who is considered to be the organiser of the rally:

“the organiser of a rally is a natural or legal person on whose behalf the rally or event is held and anyone who publicly declares himself or herself an organiser or acts as an organiser before a state body”.

Friday’s cycling protests are not held on behalf of an individual natural or legal person. No one is publicly announced as an organiser or appears as such before a state body. On the contrary, Jaša Jenull has repeatedly and publicly said that he is not the organiser, but merely one of the initiators. The protests are thus primarily an expression of mass dissatisfaction and indignation of the people with the way the authorities operate.

Secondly, according to the law experts at the Legal Network for Democracy Protection. It is clear that in the cases described the presumptions of liability for damages are not established, nor are the criteria held by the European Court of Human Rights for limiting the right to peaceful assembly met.

Finally, the claims and lawsuits against Mr. Jenull constitute an inadmissible interference with the right to peaceful assembly and public assembly (Article 42 of the Constitution) and with the right to freedom of expression (Article 39 of the Constitution).

The lawsuits against Mr. Jenull are clearly another governmental attempt to silence and intimidate protesters who express their opinion publicly. Taking into account the other claims and fines, this clearly amounts to Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The cases described are actions by which the authorities want to silence and financially exhaust a protester who regularly and sharply criticizes the government. This contravenes the rule of law and constitutes a serious violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Later this month, the 100th Friday cycling anti-government protest will be held in Ljubljana and the authorities have tried to stop, intimidate, and silence the protesters in different ways, including by large numbers of fines for misdemeanours to protesters, particularly to Mr. Jenull.

It should be noted that the Constitutional Court in Slovenia, in 2021, in its assessment of the ban on public assemblies imposed by several government decrees within Covid-19 containment measures, found that the reasons for prohibition of public protests (including spontaneous, unorganised protests, or their limitation, were not demonstrated. The court also found that the government failed to inspect the possibility of imposing milder measures known in comparable legal regulations. According to the court, the government failed to demonstrate the necessity of the challenged measures, which were deemed not in compliance with the Constitution. The measures were annulled by the court. In its decision, the court stressed the special importance of the right to peaceful assembly and public protests in a free society. Among others, in relation to spontaneous, unorganised protests, it noted that

“Within the context of the right of peaceful assembly, non-organised public protests are particularly important; their development has also been enabled by the development of new technologies and communication channels. At spontaneous public protests, participants gather without planning and without an organiser, in order to express opinions and positions on questions of public or joint importance.”