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Serbia and Kosovo: UN expert commends improvements but urges progress on arbitrary detention and police impunity

Albanian | Serbia

GENEVA (27 November 2017) - Serbia and Kosovo* have come a long way in improving their treatment of prisoners and ending torture, but still need to do more to fight arbitrary detention and police impunity, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture has said after his first fact-finding visit.

Nils Melzer commended the Government of Serbia and the authorities in Kosovo for impressive improvements in the treatment of prisoners and the conditions of detention.

“I welcome the genuine and sustained commitment of the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina to overcome the scars of the past and their unequivocal determination to prevent torture and ill-treatment in all circumstances,” said Mr. Melzer in a statement at the end of his visit.

“While I am very pleased to report that the prison systems in Serbia and Kosovo appear to be largely free of ill-treatment, the next step in the fight against impunity and arbitrary detention must focus on the police and the judicial system,” he added.

In both Serbia and Kosovo, the Special Rapporteur received numerous allegations of ill-treatment during police interrogation, most notably as a means of coercing confessions for offences related to narcotics, terrorism and organized crime – areas in which the international community has long pressured Serbia and Kosovo to deliver results.

“Detainees reported having been slapped and beaten with fists and truncheons, kicked, threatened with firearms, and forced to admit guilt for multiple crimes, sometimes in exchange for more lenient penalties or conditional release,” said Mr. Melzer.

“The pressure on detainees to confess is further exacerbated by the prospect of excessively long pre-trial detention, at times reaching three or more years even for minor offences.

“Overall, there seems to be a pattern of inefficiency in prosecutorial and judicial practice throughout Serbia and Kosovo, including proceedings in EULEX - the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo - which, in some cases, may well result in arbitrary detention or even amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

The Special Rapporteur welcomed significant efforts by prison health services to systematically examine new inmates, but said most medical staff had not been trained to detect and document physical and psychological traces of torture in line with international standards.

Throughout Serbia and Kosovo, the expert and his team interviewed numerous inmates held in police stations, remand prisons, and high security penitentiaries, as well as residents of psychiatric and social care institutions, and migrants accommodated in reception and transit centres.

The Special Rapporteur expressed serious concern about the great risk of people with mental disabilities being arbitrarily placed in institutions.

“I am deeply worried that many people would not have to be in these centres if alternative community-based structures were developed,” said Mr. Melzer, stressing the importance of the highest legal safeguards and effective monitoring to prevent arbitrary institutionalization.

The Special Rapporteur meanwhile praised Serbia’s considerable efforts over the past two years to deal with the large volume of migrants using the so-called Balkan route.

“The authorities should be commended for the great investment made to develop the necessary infrastructure and humanitarian assistance to tackle this challenge,” he said.

“While I have not received any allegations of ill-treatment against migrants within Serbia or Kosovo, I am gravely concerned by numerous allegations of physical violence, including beating, kicking, and assaults by dogs, suffered by migrants at the hands of the border police of neighbouring Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria when trying to enter their territory.

“I would like to encourage the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina to further strengthen their ongoing efforts to provide adequate medical and psychological support and rehabilitation to all victims of torture and other ill-treatment present on their territory and to ensure effective international protection.”

The Special Rapporteur will present a country report with his observations and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in March 2019.


* All references to Kosovo are to be understood in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and are without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.
Mr. Nils Melzer (Switzerland) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2016. Mr. Melzer has previously worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and is currently Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow and the Human Rights Chair of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact:
Alia EL Khatib – (+41 22 917 92 09 / aelkhatib@ohchr.org)  or sr-torture@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org

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