After international pressure was applied, seven Bulgarian and two Russian adherents of Falun Gong were released following three days of illegal detention in the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrade. The EU and Amnesty International were among those taking up the issue.
Serbian authorities accused them of threatening the national security of the country. Police forcefully took them directly from their hotel right after check-in during the late evening of Dec. 14.
“With this arrest, Serbian authorities are turning into direct accomplices in the crimes of the Chinese communist regime,” read a statement of the Bulgarian Falun Dafa Association (BFDA) from Dec. 16.
The nine had planned to participate in peaceful protests to raise awareness about the crimes in China of organ harvesting from living Falun Gong practitioners. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with his counterparts from 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries on Dec. 16–17 for the third China–(CEE) summit.
But the application for protests submitted by Serbian Falun Gong practitioners was denied by the police on Dec 13. So the group of nine Bulgarian and Russian Falun Gong adherents decided to travel to Belgrade in order to meet with Serbian Falun Gong practitioners whom they knew. They planned to meditate in a local park and discuss their experiences practicing the traditional Chinese discipline.
“[Serbian authorities] have violated the constitution of Serbia as well as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Serbia is a signee,” said the BFDA statement. “The detainment is also a clear indication that Serbia ignores the directives of the European Parliament.”
Last December, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that condemned the forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China and advised its members-states to inform their citizens to not go to China for transplantation operations, as the organs might well come from prisoners of conscience.
“None of the detainees is a criminal. They are all defenders of human rights and this is why they went to Belgrade,” continued the BFDA statement.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is an ancient Chinese spiritual method, consisting of teaching the principles of truthfulness, compassion and tolerance, and five meditative exercises. Due its huge popularity, the Chinese communist party banned Falun Gong in 1999, and launched a deadly campaign to eliminate the practice from China by all means.
‘All Rights to Protest’
In order to be allowed to contact representatives of the Bulgarian and Russian embassies, the detainees had to agree to be transferred to the Detention Removal Center at Padinska Skela in the outskirts of Belgrade. But even then they were not given the chance to speak to their consuls.
In the detention center, the Falun Gong adherents were requested to sign a declaration in which they would admit they had come to Serbia for participation in illegal protests. If they signed, they risked being deported and even prosecuted. All of the detainees refused to sign.
The police split the group into women and men, took their phones, documents, credit cards, and personal belongings. But one phone was kept secretly, so this is how the detainees communicated their arrest to their relatives in Bulgaria in the early morning of Dec. 15.
BFDA immediately notified Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Bulgarian embassy in Belgrade. It took a long time before the diplomats found out the whereabouts of the group. The MFA insisted on the immediate release of the Bulgarian citizens.
“We have information that our compatriots have not been involved in any protest actions,” said Betina Zhoteva, spokesperson of the ministry, in a statement. But Zhoteva pointed out that “As citizens of the European Union, the detained have all rights to protest.”
In the meantime, the news about the arrest of the nine practitioners spread like wildfire through all national media in Bulgaria and remained on top for two consecutive days: local activists of Falun Gong were invited to speak on the National TV, National Radio, the national TV7, Nova TV. Information of the detainment was published in all major newspapers and online media.
International Community to the Rescue
The Bulgarian MFA announced on Dec. 16 that the practitioners would most probably be released after the end of the summit. This is because the Serbian authorities were afraid that, if they were released earlier, the practitioners might return and protest.
Fortunately, to the rescue came the international community, and the practitioners were released around 7 p.m. on Dec. 17, and got back home around 3 a.m. the next day.
“I think the release ahead of plan was mainly due to pressure from the European Union,” said Georgi Pleshkov, a Bulgarian practitioner of Falun Gong and one of the detainees. “If it were not for this, they would have kept us until Thursday or even Friday.”
Eduard Kukan, Member of the European Parliament and chair of the EU-Serbia Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee, also called on the release of practitioners detained in Serbia.
“I am concerned about the detention of Falun Gong human rights activists in Belgrade, who came to Serbia to raise awareness about the human rights situation in China.
“The European Parliament is committed to supporting democracy and human rights dialogues around the world, and supports the right to assembly and peaceful protests in countries of the EU, and in the countries aspiring to become EU members. Considering that Serbia is an EU candidate country, we are alarmed by the steps the Serbian authorities took in this case, and we ask for release of the human rights activists, as well as a clear explanation of the situation.”
During a press conference on the EU-Serbia Stabilization and Association Council on Dec. 17, a journalist from NTD Television raised the question about the detention to the Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic. She answered that the incident is unpleasant, but that Serbian authorities will do everything they have to do.
Together with the seven Bulgarian and two Russian practitioners, Serbian authorities released two other practitioners of Falun Gong, held in the same center: one from Slovakia and one from Finland. Another two practitioners from Croatia were earlier banned from entering Serbia, and two more from Finland were deported back home from the airport of Belgrade.