The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Government of Belgium, as well as companies BUK d.o.o. and Green Invest on 5 January 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Governments time to reply. Regrettably, the Governments did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database. On 9 January 2023, a response was sent by Green Invest, in which they reiterated their defamation claims against the two women human rights defenders.
The next hearing in the defamation case is scheduled to take place on 25 April 2023.
Topic: filing of three defamation lawsuits against two young Bosnian activists, Sara Tuševljak and Sunčica Kovačević, by the Belgian-based company Green Invest and its subsidiary BUK d.o.o, based in Istočno Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
Ms. Sara Tuševljak and Ms. Sunčica Kovačević are two law students, aged 25, who formed a group of activists and local community members organizing peaceful protests, press conferences and other initiatives against the construction of small hydropower plants in the Kasindolska river, in East Sarajevo. They run an informal civil society initiative “Stop the construction of mini hydropower plants on the Kasindolska river” to inform about and debate the impacts of such energy projects, and have established cooperation with other organizations to advance legal action tackling the issue.
Since 2017, they have been publicly speaking out about the environmental and human rights impacts of the small hydropower plants operated by BUK d.o.o in the Kasindolska river. BUK d.o.o is a company with headquarters in Istočno, Sarajevo, and is a subsidiary of Belgian-based company Green Invest.
The women human rights defenders have been questioning the concessions and environmental permits granted to BUK d.o.o to carry out the hydropower plants projects of “Podivič”, “Slapi” and “Samar”, mainly due to alleged lack of consultation with the local community about the projects and the negative consequences of the plants to the river, its surrounding ecosystem and human health.
Their advocacy also spotlights irregularities in the process of permits issuance and, in that front, have led to the filing of a lawsuit against BUK d.o.o, in which the District Court in Banja Luka revoked the permits to construct the referred plants. Despite the Court order, the company moved forward with the construction and operation of the “Podivič” hydropower, which has been publicly criticized by Ms. Sara Tuševljak and Ms. Sunčica Kovačević and other local community members. Rulings on the status of the different permits are currently before the Constitutional and Supreme Courts.
Following recent advocacy activities and media appearance by Ms. Sara Tuševljak and Ms. Sunčica Kovačević, the mayors of the three affected municipalities expressed support in objecting the construction of the referred small hydropower plants projected by Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. in the Kasindolska river.
In response, Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. has filed three defamation lawsuits and threatened further legal action against Ms. Tuševljak and Ms. Kovačević, seeking damages equivalent to 7,500 EUR. The lawsuits are based on statements made by the women human rights defenders on the actual and potential environmental damage caused by the clearing of forests for access roads and as well as construction of the hydropower dams themselves. The court action puts defendants at risk of incurring in high proceeding costs in case of a negative Court ruling. On 24 October 2022, preliminary hearing against Ms. Tuševljak took place. The next court date set for 27 December 2022 at 12 p.m. Ms. Kovačević ́s first hearing will take place on 27 December 2022 at 2 p.m.
In the communication, we express concern at the filing of defamation lawsuits against the two young activists in face of their advocacy for the protection of the Kasindolska river and its surrounding environment. We are particularly concerned that such lawsuits present the hallmarks of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), hence may contribute to discourage their legitimate advocacy work and to have a chilling effect on other activists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations engaging in environmental protection in the region.
We are furthermore concerned about the risk of disproportional financial burden on the two defendants which may put pressure on their engagement in the defence of human rights and the environment. Moreover, we are concerned by the reported threatening tone of the lawsuits and believe they express the company’s opinions rather than factual statements, featuring the characteristics of SLAPPs.