Anti-corruption activist sentenced for defending his right to organise a public petition
Podgorica/Berlin 05 February, 2009 – The restriction of civil society activity in Montenegro reached a high point recently with the sentencing of a leading activist from Transparency International’s partner organisation MANS (Mreza za Afirmaciju NVO sektora). The sentence for obstructing police action by opposing the dismantling of a public petition, will be disputed by MANS in a complaint to be filed this Thursday 05 February before Montenegro’s High Court.
“Petitioning the government is a fundamental right for all citizens,” said Miklos Marschall, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International. “If the authorities violated the law in suppressing a constitutionally-guaranteed right, they should face the consequences. If a law lends itself to be subjectively interpreted and selectively applied, it must be changed to comply with European norms.”
Since January 2006, MANS sought transparency in the privatisation process of KAP, the largest national aluminium processor, which consumes almost half of the energy imported into Montenegro yet was not subjected to a 71 per cent price hike affecting households and small businesses. Parallel to this initiative, MANS organised a public petition against the skyrocketing prices in Montenegro in 2007 as part of a country-wide campaign.
The organisation’s efforts led to the collection of over 30.000 signatures from citizens. While collecting signatures at the main square in Podgorica, a number of unidentified persons in civilian clothing attempted to remove the petition tables and papers into a nearby vehicle. When Veselin Bajceta, Deputy Director of MANS, attempted to stop them, he was promptly arrested by the police and charged with preventing the same authority from performing their public duty. Mr. Bajceta’s sentence to one month of prison, convertible to one year of probation, was issued by the basic court in June 2008 and delivered in the last week of January 2009.
The Constitution of Montenegro guarantees every citizen the right to organise a civic initiative or petition, and local legislation does not require official permission to be obtained in order to organise public civic action.
For 14 months, MANS had, by mobilising public pressure, been pushing for the publication of the privatisation contract of KAP which was finally made public by the responsible Ministry for Economic Development, shortly before the arrest of Mr. Bajceta.
Depriving civil society of the right to speak freely, threatening and prosecuting them while, at the same time, showing zero political will to investigate and process high political and business figures for alleged grand corruption, clearly indicates that Montenegro is a long way from becoming the solid democratic society it must be as it seeks possible entry to the European Union.
As a full party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the government of Montenegro is thereby committed to actively promote civil society participation and raise awareness regarding the causes and risks posed by corruption. Transparency International calls on the government to fully fulfil this commitment without delay.
Transparency International supports MANS efforts to bring transparency to the administration of public assets, its strong protest against the intimidation of civil society in Montenegro as well as the constitutional rights of civil society activists.
Transparency International is the civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption
Note to editors: In February 2007, Montenegro faced a so called “electric shock”, when electricity bills for households and small and medium companies increased by 71 per cent due to a necessary rise in import of electricity of 30 per cent. At the same time, KAP was excluded from the official tariff policy, as the price for energy delivered to the aluminium giant remained bound to the price of aluminium and continuous delivery of energy at normal prices was guaranteed.
The campaign “KAP trosi, a ko placa” (KAP spends but who pays?) was initiated by MANS to lead citizens in preparing a petition to the Minister of Economy demanding equal treatment.
Over 50 NGOs from all municipalities of Montenegro and several local trade unions joined the campaign, together collecting over 30.000 signatures from citizens supporting the initiative, which represents the strongest support of any public initiative received so far in Montenegro.
Deputy Executive Director, MANS
Tel. + 382 20 266 326