The rich investor using a SLAPP lawsuit to silence two young Bosnian activists

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA/ 2022
Sára and Sunčica on the conference organized by Arnika in November 2022
Majda Slamova/ Arnika

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is the ideal country for contemporary colonialism. Its very pure and lush natural environment is close enough and attractive to investors from rich countries. The case at hand is a perfect example of it. The story is actually quite simple. Rich foreign investors against activists and local people who are struggling to preserve nature and life itself.

The main subject in the case concerned is the Belgian company Green Invest, which is the owner of a company called BUK d.o.o. in Sarajevo. Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. are the rich investors. On the other side we have an informal group of activists and local citizens called “STOP the construction of small hydro power plants on the Kasindolska River”, hand in hand with a few ecological organisations. 

The beginning of the story takes place in the year 2017, when BUK d.o.o. started to build its first small hydro power plant, called Podivič, on the Kasindolska River. Soon afterwards the activists and local people started to express their worries about it. Despite their worries, the next year, 2018, Podivič was built and began operating. After that BUK d.o.o. started to plan the building of another two small hydro power plants, called Samar and Slapi, on the same river.

It is very important to understand why the activists and local people are worried and in which way the building of the small hydro power plants is influencing and damaging the area of the Kasindolska River. The problems and damage are numerous. First of all, because of the building of small hydro power plants the companies are cutting down protected woodland areas without any supervision. The access paths they created caused soil erosion, which hasn’t been treated and caused floods. In November 2021, because of the erosion and a large amount of precipitation, the river dam broke and the floods damaged the local school and a few houses. The untreated erosion also caused massive landslides which blocked the natural flow of the river at some points. That ended up in mass disease affecting fish. It is also important to add that the Kasindolska River is the habitat of a few rare and protected animal species: a fish called the Dalmatian minnow, which is on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of threatened species, endemic species of trout, and the European crayfish, which is also protected. 

Despite all of the above-mentioned problems, Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. are continuing with their plans for building small hydro power plants on the Kasindolska River.

The activists and local citizens, supported by some ecological organisations, are trying to do their best to stop them. In August 2020, they initiated court proceedings, accusing Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. of violation of environmental standards. The result came a year after, in the summer of 2021, when the District Court in Banja Luka cancelled the environmental permits for all three small hydro power plants. Moreover, in December 2021 the same court also cancelled the building permit for the Samar hydro power plant. Despite that, the Podivič hydro power plant continued to operate. In June 2022 the Supreme Court of the Republika Srpska (one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina) issued a new environmental permit for Podivič. The activists complained about that decision to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The crucial and most relevant point of the story is the point at which the investor feels threatened by the activists, and starts to threaten them back, this time by using a SLAPP lawsuit against two young activists, the law students Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak, whose voices were among the loudest. Green Invest/BUK d.o.o. sued Sunčica and Sara for slander and damage to its reputation. It is interesting to add that the lawsuit is, according to the girls’ attorney, groundless, and that this is a typical strategy to sidetrack activists and to keep them occupied with the trial. The investor in this case also decided to target very young activists who don’t have much experience yet.

For those who need an explanation, a SLAPP lawsuit means Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and refers to lawsuits brought by individuals and entities to dissuade their critics from continuing to produce negative publicity. Lots of the time the goal of SLAPP cases is to discourage people from pursuing their rights to decide about their environment. By definition, SLAPP suits do not have any true legal claims against the critics. They are the second most dangerous threat to freedom of expression and dissent after physical violence. The phenomenon of powerful companies or individuals abusing the justice system to silence defenders of nature, dissenters, journalists, lawyers,, defenders of human rights, and activists is not new.

But let’s go back to our case: Sunčica and Sara are getting big support from numerous Bosnian and international ecological organisations, which sent an open letter to the Belgian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Office of the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to other relevant international organisations. The case even became part of the European Anti- SLAPP Conference, which was held in October 2022 at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The first court hearing of the case against Sunčica and Sara took place on 24 October 2022 at the Basic Court in Sokoc. Because both sides presented a large amount of evidence, the hearing of the case was interrupted, and it will be continued.

To conclude: this story is a clear representation of the cynicism of the modern world in which rich countries take care of their own ecological and human rights standards, but use completely different policies when they come to poorer countries, policies of exploitation, manipulation, devastation, and not caring. And all of it under beautiful ecology-friendly names such as Green Invest.    


Sources:

BHS 18/10/2022 Open Letter to the Belgian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Office of the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to other relevant international organisations, Foundation Atelier for Social Changes ACT

BHS12/10/2022 Joint press release of the informal group of activists and local citizens called “STOP the construction of small hydro power plants on the Kasindolska River”, organisation Foundation Atelier for Social Changes ACT, EuroNatur and Riverwatch, ACT

BHS Kasindolska River: State incentives for destroying the river, Eco Online

ENG 20/10/2022 Speech at the European anti-SLAPP Conference by Dunja Mijatović

BHS Kasindolska rijeka, YouTube

BHS STOP building the MHE on the Kasindolska River, Facebook