Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association and the government generally respected this right.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were credible reports that the government selectively restricted freedom of peaceful assembly in conjunction with the issuance of health measures by the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through arbitrary arrests, detentions, and fines (see section 1.d.). Public gatherings within 164 feet of government buildings are prohibited.
Police asserted that they prohibited gatherings that would disturb public peace and order, cause public transmission of COVID-19, or interfere with traffic. In some cases, authorities offered protesters alternate locations for demonstrations. In a few cases, police detained protesters for questioning or charged them with misdemeanors.
On June 24, when police arrested 17 opposition members, including former mayor Marko Carevic and local assembly speaker Krsto Radovic in Budva, who refused to relinquish power after losing elections, ongoing protests escalated, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. That same night, demonstrations erupted outside of police headquarters in the capital of Podgorica as well as in the central and northern cities of Niksic, Berane, Bijelo Polje, and Pljevlja, with protesters throwing stones at police in what officials of the former ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), called well scripted actions from familiar playbooks of past pre-election periods. Police in turn used force to detain dozens of demonstrators in what observers characterized as excessive use of force. In total, police arrested 41 individuals, and prosecutors brought criminal and misdemeanor charges against 54 opposition officials and supporters across the country. Nine police officers were injured during the clashes with protesters.
Several NGOs criticized the government for issuing confusing and inconsistent announcements of limits on both outdoor and indoor public gatherings to contain the spread of COVID-19. The most drastic measures were announced at the end of June, when the government banned all religious gatherings and political gatherings in open spaces, even with social distancing. That ban was later extended to include private events. In July the NGOs HRA and Institute Alternativa requested the Constitutional Court assess the constitutionality of the prohibition on public gatherings and suspend the ban on the grounds that it introduced disproportionate and excessive limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and that it was discriminatory in character. In addition, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations called on the Police Administration to ensure consistent application of police authorities and health regulations to all public gatherings, regardless of their character, purpose, or organizers.
In February the army chief of staff, General Dragutin Dakic, issued a statement warning that while soldiers were free to practice their faith, they were not allowed to participate in the ongoing Serbian Orthodox Church-organized religious processions (litije), characterizing them as “political” protests. Dakic stated, “There is no place in the Armed Forces for those who defend the church from the law, since a soldier is expected to defend the state in line with the law and the constitution.” Dakic added that “taking part in the protests, which are obviously political, which feature only the flags of another country, is unacceptable.” In June the ombudsman issued an opinion asserting that the army intervened arbitrarily and violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly with its verbal order banning participation in the litije. The ombudsman emphasized that the order had no clear basis in the law because it did not prevent military personnel from participating in protests or political rallies “if they do not wear military uniforms or parts of uniforms while attending those events.” He also stated that freedom of assembly is a basic democratic right and, like the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, it a foundation of society and cannot be interpreted narrowly.