Montenegro defends election day ban of Viber, WhatsApp

AP News
Posted: Oct 19, 2016 7:54 AM

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegrin authorities on Wednesday defended a decision to block popular messaging services WhatsApp and Viber during the country's parliamentary election, saying it was prompted by citizens' complaints and in line with EU regulations.

The state Communications Agency said in a statement that its move on Sunday was designed to prevent the abuse of the services on election day. The agency said a number of users — it did not specify how many — complained of receiving unwanted election propaganda.

"The users of mobile communications in Montenegro asked for protection," the agency said. "The ban of Viber and WhatsApp application turned out to be the only option to prevent the distribution of unwanted communication."

The ban has drawn allegations of interference from opposition politicians in Montenegro and concern from European election watchers in the small Balkan country which is seeking EU and NATO membership.

The official election results on Wednesday confirmed that the long-ruling pro-Western party of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic won most votes during the balloting, but must seek an alliance to form the next government.

The State Election Commission said that Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, which has ruled Montenegro for more than a quarter-century, won 36 seats in the 81-member Parliament. It is followed by the opposition Democratic Front with 18 seats, and the Key Coalition with nine seats, while the rest is taken up by several smaller parties and groups.

Opposition parties have complained that Sunday's balloting was marred with irregularities, including the blocking of WhatsApp and Viber.

The tense election also was marked by the arrest of 20 people, including a former commander of Serbia's special police forces, suspected of planning politically motivated armed attacks against Djukanovic and his supporters.

Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic said Wednesday suspects are facing charges of "creating a criminal enterprise and attempted terrorism." He said the allegations are based on collected evidence, including secret surveillance.

Bratislav Dikic, the former Serbian Gendarmerie unit commander and suspected mastermind of the attack plans, has denied the charges, his lawyer said. Lawyer Milan Petrovic insisted that Dikic is seriously ill and had come to Montenegro to visit a Serbian Orthodox Christian monastery.

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A judge has ordered a 30-day detention for Dikic and thirteen other suspects, while the remaining six have been released from jail.

Djukanovic is likely to seek support from minority parties and a small pro-Western group to form the new coalition government that is expected to formally take Montenegro into NATO after the country received an invitation to join last year.

Djukanovic, a former communist turned pro-West supporter, has ruled the small Balkan state for 27 years with a firm hand either as its president or prime minister. He was pivotal in the country's split from the much larger Serbia in the 2006 referendum.

Most of the opposition parties are pro-Serbian and pro-Russian and have sought to undermine the NATO membership bid.