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Thursday 7 October 2021

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Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)

A 32-year-old Serbian lawyer who has spent a decade helping asylum seekers and refugees fleeing hardship around the world find new lives in his Balkan country has received the UN refugee agency's prestigious award for Europe in a ceremony in Belgrade.

Nikola Kovacevic offers free legal advice and helps refugees apply for asylum and find shelter, work, and access to education and medical assistance.

The UNHCR said Kovacevic has represented nearly one-third of all of the asylum seekers granted protection in Serbia since he began refugee protection work in 2012.

“If you get this personal connection with the people who lost everything, who speak to you...[the] exchange of something, of energy, or gratitude, of this feeling of humanity, that’s an unbelievable feeling," Kovacevic told AP ahead of becoming the Balkans' first recipient of the UNHCR's regional Nansen Refugee Award.

Many have come from war zones like Syria or Afghanistan, but he credits an encounter with an Iranian family with inspiring him to enter the field.

“If we lose the fight for the legacy of the refugee convention, which was designed for us -- Europeans -- in the Second World War, what’s going to happen next?” Kovacevic said. “Because, you know, there is this old saying: ‘Everybody can come in[to] a situation to become a refugee."

He cited migrants from Iraq and Afghanistan that Belarus has been accused of "weaponizing" to manufacture a refugee crisis on its borders with EU members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

“Today, as we speak, dozens and dozens of Afghans are stuck in a no-man’s-land between Poland and Belarus,” Kovacevic said.

Belarus Accused Of 'Provocation' As Record Numbers Of Illegal Migrants Reach Lithuania
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A UNHCR representative in Serbia, Francesca Bonelli, said Kovacevic's efforts had contributed to improving the asylum procedure in Serbia.

Southeastern Europe has been a major transit route or destination for migrants escaping conflict, oppression, and persecution, including during the massive inflow of at least 1.3 million arrivals in 2015-16 that sparked a political backlash in some parts of Europe.

"His devotion to the refugee cause in Serbia showcases the importance of everyone’s involvement and contribution to protection of the people forced to flee their homes," Bonelli said when Kovacevic's selection for the prize was announced late last month. "Nikola’s example serves as an inspiration to all those, especially the young, who are ready to go the extra mile in providing support to refugees in need."

With reporting by AP
Fifteen editors and journalists from Tut.by were arrested on charges of tax evasion. Eleven of them remain either in custody or under house arrest.

MINSK -- Belarusian authorities have launched a new criminal probe against independent news website Tut.by, amid a continuing crackdown on independent media and freedom of speech.

An unspecified number of Tut.by staff members are suspected of jointly inciting social hatred or discord, the Investigative Committee of Belarus said on October 7.

It did not provide further details.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.

If charged and convicted, the suspects would face up to 12 years in prison.

Tut.by, once the leading independent news outlet in Belarus, was blocked by the authorities in May, and 15 of its editors and journalists were arrested on charges of tax evasion.

Eleven of them remain either in custody or under house arrest.

After the website was blocked, some of its journalists created a new information site called Zerkalo.io.

Zerkalo.io suggested that the authorities’ latest move against Tut.by journalists could be in retaliation for the creation of the new website.

Tut.by actively covered mass protests that rocked Belarus last year following the disputed results of an August presidential election that handed authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994, a sixth consecutive term.

The demonstrations demanding Lukashenka's resignation were met with the heavy-handed -- and sometimes violent -- detention of tens of thousands of people.

Several demonstrators have been killed and there have been what human rights groups call credible reports of torture in the crackdown.

Much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile.

The opposition and the West have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the country’s legitimate leader, saying the vote was rigged, and called for a new, independently monitored vote.

The authorities’ crackdown on independent journalists, the opposition, and civil society is continuing, with at least three ordinary citizens convicted on October 7 over comments they made on social media.

A court in the eastern city of Mahilyou sentenced 24-year-old Illya Dubski to five years in prison after convicting him of inciting hatred and threatening to attack law enforcement officers.

In Minsk, a court handed a two-year parole-like sentence to Mikhail Bohdan for insulting police officers online, while Valyantsina Pisaruk received a two-year parole-like sentence in the central city of Baranavichy for "insulting" a local top police official in a post.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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