Violence Against Women Is a Criminal Offence, Not a Misdemeanour

On September 7, 2022, Nataša Todorović, a candidate in the General Elections from the Bosnian-Podrinje Canton Goražde, released an audio recording to the public according to which Dragan Milović, a fellow citizen, verbally and then physically assaulted her. Mrs. Todorović noticed the attacker while walking down the street and began recording knowing that he was about to attack her, implying that she has previously had problems with the same attacker who threatened her. Mrs. Todorović tried to pull back, but the attacker continued to speak to her in an increasingly aggressive tone, cursing, belittling and spitting, before hitting her and threatening to kill her.

She reported the incident to the police in Goražde, and the suspect was held and served with a misdemeanour warrant for disturbing public order and peace, because the Prosecutor’s Office determined that there were no elements of a criminal offence. The victim was also examined at the cantonal hospital, where it was concluded that no evident physical injuries had occurred, but that the victim was distressed. According to her statement, which is published in the media, she was the victim of an attack because of her political engagement, and she had already experienced such an incident two months prior, as stated in the official report in the Novo Goražde Police Station.

This case represents gender-based violence, which is defined by the Law on Gender Equality as any act that causes physical, mental, sexual or economic harm or suffering, as well as threats of such acts that seriously impede a person’s ability to enjoy his or her rights and freedoms in public and private life. Due to the fact that he called the victim offensive and derogatory names that are typically used to degrade women, and that the doctor’s findings confirm that the victim was distressed, we can confidently conclude that it is gender-based violence. Gender-based violence is a criminal offence under the Law on Gender Equality that shall be punished by imprisonment for a term between six months to five years.

Because of the foregoing, the question arises as to why the Prosecutor’s Office decided that there are no elements of a criminal offence, despite the fact that the Law on Gender Equality treats this type of behaviour as a criminal offence. We wrote to the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office of the Bosnian-Podrinje Canton Goražde to get the answer. According to their response, it is not possible to discuss endangering security as a criminal offence under Article 183 of the FBiH Criminal Code in this situation because “the threat must be identified, to know exactly what good is jeopardised and how”. Statements that someone will do something to someone cannot be considered a threat unless the particular nature of the threat is stated. To have an element of endangering security, the threat must be directed at a specific person, it must be serious, precise, and such that the person feels threatened”. They go on to say that it is not gender-based violence because the attack was motivated by her political engagement in one of the political parties.

The response of the Prosecutor’s Office, which itself reflects gender-based violence by tolerating it (Article 6, paragraph 3 of the BiH Law on Gender Equality), demonstrates how little significance is placed on violence against women and how deeply ingrained it is in our society. Calling a woman a whore is our tradition, as is ignoring such behaviours that are insignificant to observers until another woman is added to the femicide statistics. This incident highlights the importance of Bosnia and Herzegovina finally fully harmonising its legislation with the Istanbul Convention, which is legally binding, and developing policies to ensure its successful implementation. Previous experiences and data from court practice indicate that prosecutors’ offices are largely unwilling to use the provisions of the BiH Law on Gender Equality prescribing criminal responsibility for sexual harassment and gender-based harassment, but also that understanding of these forms of violence is very low. In addition to law amendments, the necessity to collaborate with prosecutors’ offices and courts is clearly confirmed, as is the need for us as a society to discuss this matter more.

We hereby encourage competent institutions to implement the BiH Law on Gender Equality and finally start treating violence against women as a criminal offence rather than a misdemeanour, and we encourage the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to evaluate the work of the prosecutors in the Cantonal Prosecutor’s Office of BPC Goražde. We applaud the Central Election Commission’s decision to impose a fine on the perpetrator, which clearly states that such behaviour is not acceptable and will be sanctioned.