Defenders of Mt. Starica charged for their activism. From left to right Mladen Vladic, Vladimir Bozic and Nenad Kovacevic. Photo: Just Finance International January (2024).

Three Serbian environmental activists are charged with intolerance and violence, two years after their involvement in a protest against a Chinese mining company in the village of Majdanpek. The activists maintain their innocence, asserting that their demonstration was a peaceful effort to oppose hazardous mining operations that threaten both human lives and the environment.

In the summer of 2022, more than 100 individuals gathered at Mt. Starica, near Majdanpek, to protest against Zijin Mining, a Chinese company conducting blasting operations on the mountain above the village. The protesters aimed to halt these activities, fearing that the blasting would increase the community’s exposure to toxic dust from the extensive mining operations in the area. They also accused Serbia Zijin Copper of illegally operating on state land without the right to expropriate it.

For four months, the activists successfully impeded Zijin’s operations at Mt. Starica, an act referred to as the ‘Battle for Starica’. However, their efforts ended when police forcibly removed them from the mountainside, allowing the Chinese company to resume blasting. Subsequent rockfalls from the mountain damaged houses in the village.

Following the protest, three activists were interrogated by police, beaten, and imprisoned for one month on unclear charges. Their families received little information about their whereabouts or the reasons for their detention.

Now, two years later, these activists face charges of damaging other people’s property and by committing violence against Chinese workers. In an indictment read by Just Finance International, Serbian Public Prosecutor Ksenija Branković accused the activists of damaging property and inciting national and racial intolerance toward Chinese residents and workers in Serbia.

The activists deny all these charges, calling the indictment absurd. They insist they did not destroy any machinery, engage in racist behavior, or use violence. Instead, they claim they were subjected to police brutality and arbitrary detention. They believe the charges are an attempt by the Serbian government to silence their activism. 

“Instead of supporting this brave fight for the protection of nature and the rights of the local community,” one activist wrote in response to the indictment, “the government chose to implement a humiliating scenario of arrest and exile.” 

The Chinese mining company Zijin has been Serbia’s strategic partner since 2018, operating the copper and gold mines in Bor and Majdanpek, which house some of Europe’s largest deposits. The contract between Serbia and Zijin remains undisclosed, raising questions about the legality of the operations at Mt. Starica.

Open pit mine JUZNI REVIR in Majdanpek. Photo: Just Finance International (January 2024)

The case has previously drawn the attention of the United Nations. In March 2023, several independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council addressed allegations of arbitrary detentions and police violence against the activists. The UN experts requested that the Serbian government respond to these accusations within 60 days.

Among their inquiries, the UN experts sought clarification on how Serbia ensured the activists’ due process rights. These include the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal and adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense.

Serbia’s response to the UN experts denied all allegations of human rights violations. Instead, the government accused the activists of injuring a Chinese worker, damaging machinery belonging to the Chinese company, and using illegal drugs. Serbia also claimed that the excavations on Mt. Starica were conducted to protect the village from falling rocks.

Mountain Mt. Starica which was epicenter of confrontation between citizens and Chinese company, Part of mountain is missing due the excessive use of dynamite. Photo: Just Finance International (January 2024)

The activists vehemently disputed the Serbian government’s claims, accusing it of misleading the UN experts. They maintained that the excavations began without safety precautions or public announcement and were solely for the exploitation of copper, silver, and gold. To support their argument, the activists pointed to a lawsuit from 2022 signed by Zijin’s general director, which stated that “the activists are preventing the company from exploiting copper, silver and gold ore” on plot 624/1 KO Majdanpek. 

Since Zijin Mining and Zijin Copper commenced operations in Bor and Majdanpek in 2018, production has surged, accompanied by increased environmental concerns. The company has faced numerous lawsuits for expropriating private land without permits and violating environmental regulations.

Just Finance International has previously criticized the Serbian government for weakening legal frameworks and transparency concerning Chinese investments and lending.