Victims of Torture in Serbia “Tripped up” at All Levels 26 June 2020

June 26, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights alerts to the plight of victims of torture on 26 June International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

First and foremost, the relevant Serbian authorities have undertaken hardly any steps to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Back in 2016, the then Protector of Citizens filed an initiative with the Serbian National Assembly and Government to lay down in law mandatory audio and video monitoring of interrogations of suspects and of all cases of use of means of coercion, to facilitate the monitoring of the lawfulness and proportionality of the measures. Suspects are still interrogated in the inspectors’ offices in police stations.

There is no legal or experiential justification for the Serbian courts’ and prosecutors’ practice of giving all their trust to statements of police and other public officials and none to individuals who claim they have been tortured and or witnessed torture. There are hardly any cases of officers “testifying against their coworkers”, i.e. of unwarranted or excessive use of force, or of reporting it themselves.

Most criminal reports filed against public officials by victims of torture and ill-treatment are dismissed. The few cases that do make it to court end in convictions, for the most part suspended sentences. As a rule, public officials found guilty of torture or ill-treatment do not lose their jobs, although they have betrayed public trust and violated the victims’ human dignity.

The Constitutional Court has itself been “tripping up” victims of torture since it has held that prosecutors’ decisions not to prosecute alleged torturers do not violate or deny human rights and freedoms and has not even been reviewing the victims’ constitutional appeals on the merits.

The reluctance of the Protector of Citizens to alert to the topmost authorities’ liability for torture or risk of torture in specific cases is also obvious. The extradition of Kurdish activist Cevdet Ayaz to Turkey, the beating up of protesters in RTS in March 2019 and the introduction of life imprisonment without parole are merely some of the events he did not think worthy of his reaction. Whereas international bodies reviewing applications and communications against Serbia have been finding the State guilty of torture and ill-treatment and alerting to the frequency of such police treatment in their recent reports, the Protector of Citizens has stated that there is no “systemic” torture in Serbia and that merely isolated incidents are at issue. How far his assessment is removed from reality is best illustrated by recordings posted on social networks during the state of emergency, showing police slapping, punching and kicking people and grossly violating their human dignity, even at public venues.

In the absence of community support services, many people with intellectual difficulties remain institutionalised. Deinstitutionalisation is still a distant goal for the Serbian society. These institutions suffer not only from lack of decent living conditions, but also from lack of staff who can provide the wards with psychological, psycho-social and psychiatric treatment, wherefore they sometimes resort to overmedication.

Several positive steps have, however, been made in the past few years: the Serbian Bar Chamber opened a call centre for the appointment of ex officio counsel; the Legal Aid Act, which recognises victims of torture and ill-treatment as beneficiaries entitled to free legal aid regardless of their financial standing, was adopted; and, the Ministry of Internal Affairs Commission for the Implementation of Torture Prevention Standards by the Police was established. The effects of these measures and the work of these bodies are yet to be reviewed.

The BCHR has been collecting data on all prosecutorial and court cases opened in response to allegations of torture and ill-treatment committed by public officials for ten years now. The BCHR marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by posting the testimony of Roki Đorđević from Kula, a victim of police torture in late January 2020.

The testimony is available here.