On 28 March 2022, the team of the Protector of Citizens that carries out the tasks of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), led by the Deputy Protector of Citizens Nataša Tanjević, paid a thematic visit to the Penal-Correctional Institution in Belgrade and the Penal-Correctional Institution in Belgrade-Padinska Skela. In addition to employees from the Protector of Citizens, the team also included a representative of the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights.
Both visits were unannounced and carried out in order to monitor the institution's treatment of persons deprived of their liberty who are subject to the disciplinary measure of solitary confinement or the special measures of isolation, i.e. in any form of isolation in relation to other persons deprived of their liberty, their position and the exercise of their rights. During the visit, the NPM team conducted unsupervised interviews with certain convicted persons, inspected the relevant documentation, and toured the premises intended for the enforcement of the aforementioned measures.
The key findings from both visits will be published as part of a special thematic report, after the planned visits to institutions devoted to the mentioned topic are carried out.
The professional conduct of the management and employees of the institution during the visit of the NPM is an example of good practice, in accordance with the obligation of the authorities, established by law, to cooperate with the NPM.
Nataša Tanjević, the Deputy Protector of Citizens for the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, presented the activities of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) in the last two years and highlighted the most important findings and recommendations of the NPM in the area of torture prevention and other forms of abuse at an online conference "Fight against Torture and Other Forms of Abuse in Serbia", held on 25 March 2022, organized by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
The topic of the conference was the assessment of the situation in Serbia in the area of the prohibition of torture and other forms of abuse, especially from the point of view of the findings and recommendations addressed to Serbia in the latest reports of international bodies – the Committee against Torture of the United Nations, the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the European Committee of the Council of Europe for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Tanjević, PhD, also indicated that the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee against Torture cover the period 2015-2019, and that in the meantime, numerous activities have been undertaken to improve the situation in the area, such as improving material conditions in detention facilities, institutions for the enforcement of penal sanctions, visited psychiatric institutions and social welfare homes, the recording of injuries by doctors in institutions, developing the capacities of the institution’s officials for the development and implementation of new rehabilitation programs, improving the records kept by police stations for detained persons, etc. She also stated that the NPM, as in the previous years, and on the occasion of the last report of the CPT, will continue to conduct visits to the institutions in order to monitor the implementation of the recommendations and will thus strive to contribute to the improvement of the situation in that area.
The conference was attended by representatives of the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE Mission to Serbia, international experts, as well as representatives of the competent ministries and institutions of the Republic of Serbia and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
On 14 February 2022, the Protector of Citizens, in performing the tasks of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), was not allowed to conduct an unannounced visit to the Institution for Adults and Elderly "Gvozden Jovančićević" in Veliki Popovac, according to the Visits Plan for 2022. The NPM team consisted of employees of the Department of the National Preventive Mechanism, a representative of the association Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, as well as an engaged expert, a doctor specializing in psychiatry. The aim of the visit was to examine the position of beneficiaries of social protection services in residential care, such as adults and elderly people with intellectual disabilities.
In front of the entrance to the institution, the NPM team spoke with the director of the institution, who contacted the line ministry and the Institute for Public Health, Požarevac, and informed the team members that it is not possible to access the facilities of the institution and carry out the visit, since there are six beneficiaries in the institution who are positive for COVID-19, while six employees are in home isolation.
This ban was issued even though the Protector of Citizens, in performing the tasks of the NPM, informed the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs several times during 2020 and 2021 that the NPM will carry out visits to social welfare homes and institutions with full respect for all legally prescribed preventive measures, using full protective equipment and adapting their work methods to the newly developed situation, respecting the principle of "doing no harm". The visit was not allowed, although the ministry was informed of all the obligations that our country assumed by adopting the Law on Ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as that the protection of persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is an obligation established by international law that cannot be derogated from, even in the circumstances of a pandemic and epidemic.
The Ministry was also referred to the advice of the Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment related to the coronavirus pandemic, adopted on 25 March 2020, in which this body clearly took the position that national mechanisms for the prevention of torture should continue exercising their mandate, i.e. they should undertake preventive visits during the pandemic as well, respecting the necessary restrictions in the way visits are carried out and with reduced social contact.
The Protector of Citizens also indicates that the NPM was prevented from conducting an announced visit to the Institution for Mentally Ill Persons "1st October" in Stari Lec, since this institution obtained the opinion of the Institute for Public Health in Pančevo, which stated that it is necessary to postpone the visit until the epidemiological situation in the South Banat District, and the institution itself, improves. Also, the opinion stated that the visit was possible only on the basis of a court order, which indicates ignorance of the mandate of the NPM.
The Protector of Citizens reminds that in carrying out the tasks of the NPM, it conducts unhindered visits to all places and institutions where persons deprived of their liberty are or may be located, and that preventing the exercise of such mandate in social protection institutions represents a violation of legal regulations, international standards, the obligation of administrative authorities to cooperate with the Protector of Citizens, which results in the impossibility of controlling the respect of the basic rights of persons in social protection institutions and prevents state authorities and officials from being deterred from actions that could have the character of abuse.
Today, the Institution of the Protector of Citizens marked ten years of work of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). The jubilee celebration was organized in the Palace of Serbia in Belgrade, with guests and representatives of international organizations, the Provincial Ombudsman, civil sector organizations and state authorities, with whom the NPM has achieved successful cooperation over the past decade.
The NPM was established in 2011 by the Law on Ratification of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture. The Law on the Ratification of the Optional Protocol stipulates that the Protector of Citizens performs duties of the NPM, as well as that he cooperates, in performing those duties, with the ombudsmen of the autonomous provinces and associations whose statute envisages the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms as the purpose of the association.
The NPM is part of the activities of the Protector of Citizens to which special attention is paid. The Protector of Citizens can proudly point out that he was the initiator of the establishment of numerous networks, among others, in 2013, the South-Eastern Europe NPM Network, said the Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, MSc, in his opening address. As he said, in the past ten years, the NPM has done a lot to improve the protection of the rights of persons deprived of their liberty and the prevention of torture, but he also pointed out that the competent authorities, acting on the recommendations of the NPM, have undertaken significant activities to improve the situation.
Milica Đorđević, in front of the Office of the Council of Europe in Belgrade, said that in the last two years, the work of the NPM has been visibly improved, and in this regard, she particularly highlighted the activities of the NPM during the pandemic. Speaking about the cooperation with the NPM, she pointed out that the biggest impression on her was the enthusiasm of the NPM team, which achieves a lot with not so large capacities, which can be seen in the number of visits made and the number of reports they made and recommendations they issued.
The Deputy Protector of Citizens and head of the NPM, Nataša Tanjević, stated that in the past ten years, the NPM has made close to 800 announced and unannounced visits and prepared several hundred individual reports and nine annual reports, which contain about three thousand recommendations issued to state authorities. "This written material, carefully noted and documented, also represents a kind of review of the position of persons deprived of their liberty over the course of a decade and the manner in which state authorities and institutions behaved towards them", Tanjević said and expressed her satisfaction that the recommendations from the reports that the NPM has been sending after the conducted visits were largely acted upon.
Dr. Tanjević pointed out that this contributed to the improvement of the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, the improvement of the work of the authorities and the overall prevention of torture and other forms of abuse, and that the fact that there is a prevailing awareness of civil servants who treat persons deprived of their liberty, as well as their managers, that torture is a form of illegal conduct, is encouraging.
The Deputy Protector of Citizens added that individual cases of torture or abuse are always possible, because torture, like any other form of abuse, is often conditioned or encouraged by the circumstances of a specific situation and event, but it is never justified. "Namely, the prohibition of torture is absolute, so that no circumstance, situation or incentive can justify it... It should be borne in mind that the suppression of inadequate conduct does not only mean the adoption of appropriate legal norms, but also taking the necessary steps to ensure their application, including timely forwarding of information about inadequate treatment to competent prosecutorial and judicial authorities, as well as conducting effective investigations into allegations of inadequate conduct, all with the aim of achieving "zero tolerance" for torture and building a culture of punishment, determining individual responsibility and sanctioning the perpetrators."
"The fight against torture is not only a fight for the victims of torture, but also a fight for the dignity of us all, and the right to dignity, according to the Constitution, among the provisions on human rights and freedoms, comes before the right to life", Tanjević pointed out, adding that it is an obligation of us all to act like people in all situations, because there is no excuse, no interest, general or individual, that is allowed to change that.
Dr. Tanjević thanked all the individuals, civil society organizations, international organizations and state authorities with whom the Protector of Citizens cooperated in the previous 10 years in performing the work of the NPM. "Through our work and activities, as well as through the celebration of this anniversary, we tried to contribute to the construction of a torture-free society in which the physical and psychological integrity and dignity of every citizen is respected, in every situation, without exception and regardless of the circumstances."
As part of the jubilee celebration, a short film made by the NPM employees was shown, with the support of film participants from the civil sector, state authorities and institutions with which the NPM has particularly successfully collaborated over the past ten years.
The Protector of Citizens, in performing the work of the National Preventive Mechanism, participated in the ENNHRI project (European Network of National Human Rights Institutions) „NHRI’s work to promote and protect the human rights of migrants at borders“ within which the NPM team went to the borders with Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria and Croatia, as well as at international airports in 2021. On the grounds of these visits, the NPM submitted a report on the treatment of migrants at the borders, which ENNHRI combined with the findings of other national human rights institutions into one regional report http://ennhri.org/rights-at-borders/#reports. The report outlines regional trends and challenges in respecting fundamental human rights of migrants at state borders.
Since July 2019, ENNHRI has supported NHRIs (National Human Rights Institutions) in the promotion and protection of migrants' rights at borders. As part of this project, national human rights institutions in Croatia, France, Greece, Serbia and Slovenia have produced national reports that include good practices, findings and recommendations. These are based on monitoring conducted between July 2019 and April 2021.
27 July 2021 On 1 April and 14 May 2021, discharging the NPM tasks, the Protector of Citizens team led by Ms. Nataša Tanjević PhD, the Deputy Protector of Citizens, has made a visit to the Penal-Correctional Institution (PCI) for Women in Požarevac in order to monitor the implementation of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok rules). The Report with recommendations was issued to the authorities with a view to rectifying the identified shortcomings and improving the acting towards the women prisoners.
The PCI for Women and the Administration for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions have acted upon all recommendations of the Protector of Citizens i.e. they have taken the measures to act upon them. In following the recommendations, the visits of a neuropsychiatrist to the Institution were provided more often and a proposal has been submitted to the Administration to provide for the job position of a psychiatrist for a permanent period. The new job classification envisages four new job posts for treatment officers employment. Furthermore, the Institution regulated the searches of children via in-house procedures, ensuring competence, professionalism and sensitivity and respect for their dignity during searches. The convicts were enabled to make contacts with family members even during the enforcement of solitary confinement disciplinary measure. Also, the Institution’s in-house procedures specify that children visitors are to leave the premises where the visit took place before the convict they visited, as the ending of the visit may be particularly difficult for children and parents, while seeing a parent leave upon the prison officer’s orders can make this even harder for children.
The PCI took measures to enable pregnant mothers, nursing mothers and women convicts with children to participate in the work and other activities tailored to their needs and possibilities and suggested to the Administration to extend the job classification with a kindergarten teacher job position, in order to create conditions for caring for children in the absence of immediate maternal care.
The PCI also notified the Protector of Citizens that through observing the NPM’s visit, getting acquainted with the Report on the visit and working on rectifying the identified shortcomings and improving the process of enforcing penal sanctions against women, the employees have had the opportunity to grasp the functioning of the Institution from an external, neutral, impartial and expert side which they deemed beneficial and necessary to be realized in the future.