17 February 2022
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.