Two challenges are recognized by analysing protest in Montenegro in late 2015: the excessive use of force and the lack of transparency by the police.
Political and civic protests, that occurred last October in the organization of opposition coalition Democratic Front, lasted almost one month, with the aim to boycott the Parliament and demand resignation of the longstanding Prime Minister, and the Government.
Peaceful protest escalated into violent one, after couple of individuals has thrown flares on the police forces guarding the Parliament. While the police acted in accordance with the procedure at the beginning, protecting themselves and the building, it did not stop using force excessively through the night.
The outcome of protests has shown us just how irresponsible and repressive police force can be.
The Excessive Use of Force
The police have the responsibility to maintain public order and peace during assemblies, taking care of their own integrity in the process. This means that whether peaceful assembly becomes violent, causing the police to act, the force must be used within legal boundaries and respect for human rights.
This was not the case in October 2015 when tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed the protest in front of the Parliament. The problem emerged when the police did not act to provide safe retrieve of those who remained peaceful participants of the assembly, causing harm to many, who suffered from consequences of tear gas.
The protest ended in numerous citizens being hurt due to excessive use of force by the police, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and nightsticks, and prosecution of only three individuals: Commander and two officers of Special Antiterrorist Unit (SAU). While these two officers voluntarily confessed the attack on one individual on the night of the protest, the Commander was not capable of identifying the other 28 of the SAU who attacked the same person, Mr. Martinović.
A flagrant example of excessive use of force by the police during the protests is the beating of citizen Martinović on October 24th. Members of the SAU, dragged him out of the car and beat him bestially (see video below).
Shortly after the protest, the Commander of the SAU, Radosav Lješković, witnessed before the Basic Prosecutor’s Office, stating that he cannot identify who were the members of the unit who have beaten the citizen since they wore helmets and masks. Eight members of the SAU also witnessed but only two of them remained in custody.
Thus, Lješković did not know which members of SAU, unit that he is in charge of, brutally injured Martinović. But the lack of responsibility does not stop here; neither his superiors, Slavko Stojanović, Police Administration Director nor Raško Konjević, then Minister of Interior have been held responsible for this act.
Lack of integrity and accountability of three senior officials – Lješković, Stojanović, and Konjević, is dangerous, having in mind the repressive nature of the police apparatus. What is additionally worrying is the obvious intention of police officers to cover up unethical treatment of their colleagues. It sends a message that using excessive use of force is the modus operandi of Montenegrin police, an institution that already does not enjoy great public confidence.
Seven months after protests took place, it is still unknown who were the members of SAU, due to alleged inability to recognize them because of the silence of senior police officers. And who knows how long would the shameful silence last if the Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms had not filed a criminal charge against the Commander of SAU, followed by Basic Prosecutor’s Office raising the bill of indictment against him.
While various institutions and civil society organizations condemned this behaviour by the police, Ministry of Interior and Police Administration stood by their action justifying it till the end, mostly by “forgetting” to share all the relevant data regarding the use of force on the night of 24th October.
The Lack of Transparency
The Council for Civic Control of the Police, an external police oversight body in Montenegro, reacted in regard to protests by stating that “culture of silence” still dominates police organization.
There are two problems. Firstly, the police did not mention the use of rubber bullets in the official communication with the Council, during first reporting on the undertaken actions of Commission for determining the circumstances surrounding the use of force, back on 4th November 2015. Secondly, the Commission delivered the report to the Council’s, which then published it on its website. Not long after, Konjević has initiated the process before the Agency for Protection of Personal Data to establish whether there were any breaches of the Law on Personal Data Protection.
Although Agency did not found any breaches, this act has deeper implications on the independence of the external oversight institutions, since it was perceived as a pressure on the Council.
Not only that Ministry is legally obliged to publish and regularly update the list of civil servants on their own accord, but also it was especially necessary for those very moments when Lješković refused to cooperate with Prosecution. If we strive to build the Police which will be the service of the citizens, not a single police officer should try to hide his or her professional identity.
The independence of the external oversight institutions is even more endangered when the Ministry of Interior provided the complete and detailed data on the use of force to the Council of Europe, as international community actor. The Ministry of Interior justified the use of additional coercive means, tear gas and rubber bullets, as the means necessary to avoid direct physical contact and confrontation with protesters.
Policing the Protests in the Future
Police action must be guided by the human rights principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination. Individual acts of police officers have to be prosecuted, while the top officials in the Ministry and in the Police have to condemn excessive use of force.
Police should prescribe precise ways and condition of using these coercive means, in order to control the use of force in the future.
In order to prevent similar happening in future, it is important that all police sectors respect the provision of the Law on Internal Affairs regarding the official identification of all police officers. Otherwise, members of the unit using special uniforms, masks and helmets should wear different recognizable marks known to their superiors, such as number or symbols that would enable citizens to identify officers.
In order to stop further use and abuse of coercive means, and therefore increase the level of integrity within police forces, the police officers need to be trained in order to increase their capacities to deal with stressful situations as well as regular psychological assessments.