Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Prevention of Torture in Serbia's Prisons and Mental institutions

By Ljilja Cvekic

BELGRADE, July 17 (Serbia Today) – Serbia’s Ombudsman has formed a monitoring team for prevention of torture, cruel and inhumane treatment of people in prisons, police stations and mental institutions, Deputy Public Advocate Milos Jankovic told Serbia Today on Wednesday.
“Abolishment of torture and any other kind of inhumane and degrading treatment has become not only an ethical principle but also an imperative in order to protect each individual, as well as the state and democracy,” he said.
People locked in prisons or juvenile delinquents correction facilities, psychiatric hospitals or homes for children with mental disabilities are marginalized and often forgotten by the society, presenting the easiest targets of ill-treatment. Their essential human rights, including the right to humane living conditions and proper health care, are often violated.
The Ombudsman’s decision of June 29 on establishment of preventive mechanism for monitoring those institutions says teams of legal experts, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and other relevant experts will “systematically collect, check and process data relating to protection of persons deprived of liberty”. Their reports will be made public and will represent the basis for recommendation of the Ombudsman to the relevant authorities and the Parliament.
Although Serbia is not a country where torture is institutionalized, there are numerous examples of inhumane treatment and an evident lack of control and sanctions by the state. By definition, torture means causing a physical or psychological pain by the state or with an explicit or silent agreement by the state, when the authorities are aware of its existence but fail to react.
“A general opinion that particularly cruel types of torture are not being used here, like those we see in movies or on pictures of certain prison systems, such as Guantanamo, does not mean that there are no individual cases of torture,” Jankovic says.
The Council of Europe anti-torture committee said in its report on Serbia published this year that the major complaints on physical ill-treatment were coming from people detained by the police and called upon Serbia to ensure presence of a lawyer, medical doctor and an interpreter if needed.
The report also points to the problem of overcrowded psychiatric institutions where inter-patient violence leads to frequent resort to mechanical restrains, when sometimes patients remain tied up for prolonged periods, and urged Serbia to reorganize the system of care for people with mental disabilities.
Both prisons and mental institutions are overcrowded and they are lacking trained personnel. In some cases there is only one physician on 400 people with mental disabilities or one doctor in a prison with 1,300 inmates. Serbia has currently about 10,500 prisoners, held in prisons with a total capacity to accommodate 7,000.
“Despite many prejudices, persons deprived of freedom have inalienable human rights that have to be respected. Living conditions which are violating their human rights cannot be justified with lack of funds or their eventual guilt for an act committed,” said Jankovic, adding that more human living conditions have to be ensured in institutions, first of all regarding the accommodation, treatment and health care.
The expert teams will now start visiting these institutions without prior notice, without restrictions in viewing all rooms, will have an access to all files and have confidential conversation with prisoners or patients and staff without any supervision.
Serbia has ratified both the United Nations and Council of Europe anti-torture conventions, obliging itself to prevent and sanction torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment.
“It is not only an issue of fulfilling the international obligations and of Serbia’s international credibility, but a necessity for preserving a dignity of all citizens and a democratic essence of our country.”

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