Soldiers patrol the streets with their fingers on machine gun triggers. The army guards an exhibition center-turned-makeshift-hospital crowded with rows of metal beds for those infected with the coronavirus. And Serbia’s president warns residents that Belgrade’s graveyards won’t be big enough to bury the dead if people ignore his government’s lockdown orders.
Since President Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, parliament has been sidelined, borders shut, a 12-hour police-enforced curfew imposed and people over 65 banned from leaving their homes — some of Europe’s strictest measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Serbian leader, who makes dramatic daily appearances issuing new decrees, has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.
Rodoljub Sabic, a former state commissioner for personal data protection, says by proclaiming a state of emergency, Vucic has assumed “full supremacy” over decision-making during the crisis, although his constitutional role is only ceremonial.
“He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government,” Sabic said. “No checks and balances.”
In ex-communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere, populist leaders are introducing harsh measures including uncontrolled cellphone surveillance of their citizens and lengthy jail sentences for those who flout lockdown decrees.
The human rights chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said while she understands the need to act swiftly to protect populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly declared states of emergency must include a time limit and parliamentary oversight.
“A state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary,” said the OSCE rights chief, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir.
In times of national emergency, countries often take steps that rights activists see as curtailing civil liberties, such as increased surveillance, curfews and restrictions on travel, or limiting freedom of expression. China locked down whole cities earlier this year to stop the spread of the virus as India did with the whole nation.
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Amnesty International researcher Massimo Moratti said states of emergency are allowed under international human rights law but warned that the restrictive measures should not become a “new normal.”
“Such states need to last only until the danger lasts,” he told The Associated Press.