The Ombudsman assessment of the Serbian police was predominantly – but not exclusively – negative.
By Mateja Agatonović (BCSP)
The Serbian Ministry of the Interior (MoI) did not show the necessary level of cooperation with the Ombudsman in 2016. Especially, this was a practice in cases where systemic failures of the police work have been identified, such as “Savamala” case where a group of masked people demolished private objects in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade.
The lack of timely and decisive action following the Ombudsman’s recommendations on “Savamala” case resulted in a notable reaction from the domestic and international public. Still, the Government refused to cooperate with the previous Ombudsman on the “Savamala” case due to political clashes. Nothing will probably change with the election of Zoran Pašalić as the new Ombudsman in July 2017. He stated that the “Savamala” incident will not be a priority to his office, due to the intense politicization of the case.
Ever since the incident, political officials have been trying to downplay the importance of the case and deny their own responsibility. In order to control the damage and appease the public, roughly a month and a half after the incident, at that time the President of the Government Aleksandar Vučić said that “the top city officials” were behind the demolition. Regardless of this claim, criminal procedure is still at the stage of the preliminary investigation.
However, the “Savamala” case is not the only one where the Ombudsman intervened in regard to the policing in Serbia.
The Ombudsman launched an urgent probe of the arrests of two police officers for passing official state secrets to the media about their covert and allegedly illegal assignment in Srebrenica in 2015. So called “Potočari” case refers to an alleged unlawful covert mission because Bosnia and Herzegovina were not told that Serbian police officers were conducting surveillance at the ceremony in Srebrenica, during which the President of the Government Vučić was assaulted with stones and water bottles by the crowd. Moreover, the Ombudsman began collecting information about a policeman who was suspended following a letter addressed to the Serbian Interior Ministry by Zvezdan Jovanović, the man who shot on the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić in 2003.
The work of the police is regular for the Ombudsman throughout the year. The Ombudsman reported that 552 complaints were filed against the MoI in 2016 and that their share of perceived breaches of human rights amongst the Ministries has increased to 43%. Ombudsman assessment of the Serbian police was predominantly – but not exclusively – negative.
For instance, in the Annual 2016 report, Ombudsman calls “the efforts of the competent authorities aimed at improving the treatment of the arrested, those who were assigned the police detention, who was pronounced the measure of detention as well as those who were sentenced to imprisonment” noticeable. He also reports that the number of complaints and allegations of persons deprived of their liberty (such as in police custody) is considerably decreased.
There are quite a few problems that affect the effectiveness of the control exercised by the Ombudsman over the police. First of all, a mechanism to ensure implementation of the recommendations has yet to be established. Recommendations are binding but are impossible to enforce without the active support of the Government. Although the Government is obliged to report to the National Assembly on the fulfillment of the recommendations once every six months, it does not do it. In 2015 the Ombudsman and the President of the Government used to hold regular monthly meetings, but last year such practice was discontinued. Also, effective control of the police by the Ombudsman is based on the assumption of cooperation with the MoI, which has deteriorated, because of efforts made to hide certain information concerning the Savamala case during the related control process.
Ombudsman’s remain recommendation for the integrity building within the police is to improve the provisions of the Law on Police that relate to the competence, powers, and autonomy of the Internal Control Sector, in order to enable its more efficient work, as well as a greater degree of independence from the Minister of Interior. The BCSP also recommends that the compliance with the binding recommendations of the Ombudsman and the decisions of the Commissioner are essential for external oversight.