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Coronavirus In Court: Bosnia's Age-Based Lockdowns Are Ruled Discriminatory

People wait for a coronavirus test outside a state hospital in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
People wait for a coronavirus test outside a state hospital in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

SARAJEVO -- Bosnia-Herzegovina's Constitutional Court has ruled that coronavirus restrictions requiring the elderly and minors to stay under lockdown are discriminatory.

The verdict follows protests in the United States by opponents of wider lockdowns who argue that overreaching restrictions violate their constitutional rights.

It also comes amid a growing global debate about whether it is appropriate for lockdowns to single out and target specific groups of people.

The Bosnian court ruled on April 22 that officials did not show how they concluded that children and the elderly carry a higher risk than others of "contracting or transmitting infection with COVID-19."

"Furthermore, the possibility of introducing milder measures, if such a risk is justified, has not been considered," the court ruled.

The court also noted that Bosnia's age-based ban "is not strictly limited in time" and does not oblige authorities to ensure through regular reviews that it will "last only as long as is 'necessary' as required by the European Convention."

Despite the ruling, the court rejected calls for the restrictions to be immediately lifted.

Under the European Convention, signed and ratified by Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002, authorities in Sarajevo should "alleviate or abolish" restrictions targeting minors and the elderly "as soon as the situation permits," the court ruled.

The court gave Bosnia's federal government five days from receiving the decision to "harmonize" its lockdown orders with Bosnia-Herzegovina's constitution and the European Convention.

Ironically, the decision was reached during an April 22 court session in Sarajevo that was conducted via video conferencing because of the risks posed by the pandemic.

Zvonko Mijan, the registrar for the court, told RFE/RL that the case focused on appeals against the ban that were filed by a person over 65 years of age and by a parent who is under the age of 18.

"They stated that the decision of the Federal Civil Protection Headquarters and the Government of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina to prohibit movement for these two categories of people violates their fundamental rights," Mijan told RFE/RL.

Zoran Tegeltija, chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Council of Ministers, announced a nationwide state of emergency on March 17, just one day after the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska entities separately declared emergency situations and introduced measures to try to slow the spread of the disease.

'No Proportionality'

Under that state of emergency, civil protection authorities from Bosnia's federal government issued a temporary ban on March 20 against people under 18 and over 65 from venturing out in public.

The ban was due to expire on March 31 but was extended on March 27 "until further notice."

The streets of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, have been virtually deserted during the coronavirus lockdown.
The streets of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, have been virtually deserted during the coronavirus lockdown.

The complainants argued in the Bosnian court that the indefinite extension of the ban violated their human rights in a "discriminatory manner on the basis of age."

One complainant, a father under the age of 18, also argued that the restrictions on his movement prevented him from "providing care and protection" to his child and made his "daily life" more difficult.

Legal expert Kasim Trnka told RFE/RL that the judges in the case had to balance the rights of individual freedom against the need to protect the health of citizens over 65 and under 18.

Trnka concluded that Bosnia's Constitutional Court "has certainly adhered to international standards regarding the possible restriction of human freedoms and rights."

"However, it is a little problematic for me that the Constitutional Court finds that no proportionality has been established between the measure prescribed and the legitimate aim" of protecting children and the elderly.

France Backtracks

The French government was accused of discriminatory coronavirus policies on April 13 when President Emmanuel Macron announced that nationwide lockdown measures would be lifted on May 11 except for the elderly.

Within days, the backlash from the public forced the French government to reverse its course.

Macron's office announced on April 17 that when confinement measures are lifted, it will be with "no discrimination" against specific age groups.

Macron's office said people will still be expected to take "responsibility" in their decisions about how to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the French government's chief scientific adviser is still recommending that people aged "over 65 or 70" stay at home.

Czech Lockdown 'Imposed Illegally'

Prague's Municipal Court on April 23 ruled that some of the Czech government's coronavirus measures are illegal because they were imposed by the Health Ministry rather than as a crisis measure under the country's state of emergency.

In a ruling that is final, the court said a single ministry cannot have the right to impose restrictions such as limiting the movement of citizens and shutting down retail businesses.

The Czech government has until April 27 to adopt the measures again and in line with the law.

U.S. Anti-Lockdown Movement

In the United States, anti-lockdown protesters aren't complaining about discrimination in the lockdown orders that have been issued by state and local governments.

Rather, they argue that coronavirus restrictions in the United States are too broad and simply go too far.

The White House's own guidance to state authorities about relaxing restrictions calls for a slow and phased reopening.

White House medical experts also warn that opening the economy too fast could result in a resurgence of the virus that already has infected more than 869,000 people in the United States and killed some 50,000.

People protest against the coronavirus lockdown in Lansing in the U.S. state of MIchigan.
People protest against the coronavirus lockdown in Lansing in the U.S. state of MIchigan.

But Republican politicians and individuals affiliated with President Donald Trump's reelection campaign have been organizing or promoting anti-lockdown protests in key electoral battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.

Some Republican party leaders and Trump allies also have been encouraging their social-media followers to join anti-lockdown protests.

Trump himself has criticized some state governors for going too far with economic restrictions.

On Twitter, the president has said it is time to "liberate" Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. The governors in those states are Democrats.

Facebook has responded to the U.S. anti-lockdown movement by removing promotions for public protests against stay-at-home measures in Nebraska, New Jersey, and California.

UN Chief Warns Of 'Human Rights Crisis'

In an April 23 video message, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the pandemic is "a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis."

Guterres did not name any specific country in the video.

But he said there has been discrimination in the delivery of public services aimed at curtailing the pandemic and "structural inequalities that impede access to them."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (file photo)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (file photo)

Guterres also said the pandemic has had "disproportionate effects on certain communities" with a "rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response."

With "rising ethnonationalism, populism, authoritarianism, and a pushback against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic," Guterres said.

The UN chief stressed that emergency measures must be "legal, proportionate, necessary, and nondiscriminatory."

He said measures should have a "specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health."

He concluded that governments must be "transparent, responsive, and accountable," and that press freedom, civil society, the private sector, and "civic space" are essential.

"The message is clear: People -- and their rights -- must be front and center," Guterres said.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by Mirna Sadikovic, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Sarajevo; additional reporting by Reuters, AP, and France 24

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