Threat to youth activists

June 2, 2000

Belgrade

Serbian authorities are threatening to use a stringent anti-terrorism law against activists from the youth resistance group Otpor, which is recruiting support from students across Serbia and demanding elections to oust President Slobodan Milosevic from power.

Serbia's universities have been effectively closed down by the education minister as a result of the protests, pre-empting a planned student strike.

Otpor is courting students. "Our aim is to radicalise and mobilise students," said Otpor activist Branko Ilic.

The resistance movement is seeking a widespread campaign of civil disobedience that would - with the support of opposition political leaders - disrupt life across the country.

Student protests in and outside the capital have been under way for days. Almost 2,000 gathered in the southern city of Nis, but they were blocked by police when they sought to submit a letter to the city's police chief. In Belgrade, students from the architecture faculty locked themselves in their building in protest at the Milosevic regime and philology students briefly blocked a road in the capital.

Jevrem Janjic, the education minister, responded by unexpectedly curtailing the university year. He ordered chancellors and deans to end all classes last Friday and to allow entrance only to those students with faculty identification cards who needed to sit exams.

Prior to his ruling, many departments had sought to extend the year beyond May 31 because of the disruption to study that students have faced.

The bid by Otpor to widen its base comes as the movement is under threat from the Milosevic regime, which accuses it of terrorism and being an agent of Nato.

Senior ministers, including the influential information minister Goran Matic, have accused them of being behind the assassination of a leading Socialist Party boss in the northern city of Novi Sad and said members would be arrested because the movement is not registered.

Otpor denies the allegations and says it espouses non-violent means. Otpor has now applied to register itself as a civic organisation. But hundreds of members across the country have been arrested by police and held for several hours before release.

The government is threatening to introduce an anti-terrorism bill that could give it powers equal to those of the martial law imposed during the Nato bombing.

The regime will not say when the law will be introduced, but top Socialist Party member Nikola Sainovic said: "The work of Otpor has a violent character, disrupts public peace and order and the security of the country - and these activities will be prevented."

Otpor activist and young lawyer Slobodan Homen said that Otpor's non-violent, legitimate character gave the movement its popularity and strength. "The regime is attacking Otpor because it is the most popular organisation in Serbia. We are fighting for demands such as free and fair elections. With those demands we can gain the support of the police and the army, because we are defending the constitution.

"It's very hard to explain to a soldier in a tank that he has to shoot people demanding elections."

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