The Protector of Citizens, Mr. Zoran Pašalić was guest at “TV VESTI”

Last year, the coronavirus epidemic affected our lives, as well as the institutions’ work. When and from whom did the Ombudsman protect citizens, did the institutions act in compliance with the law? Mr. Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, is my guest today. Good afternoon and welcome. Let’s first take a look back at the previous weekend, the tougher measures that were in force. What’s the Protector of Citizens’ view on it? 

Do you mean tougher measures or the general situation regarding the rise of the number of cases?

Primarily the tougher measures.

I can speak about the tougher measures from several aspects - as the Protector of Citizens, as a citizen and as someone with 15-year tenure in misdemeanor courts. This situation of course goes beyond all those which we have already gone through…. Since I advocate for and protect the interests of the majority of citizens of the Republic of Serbia, I believe that the majority of citizens should be fully protected, which means that their freedom of movement, their ability to live as close as possible to normalcy should be fully enabled. On the other hand, those who deliberately violate the Regulation with any idea should be punished more drastically. This means that by amending one article of the Law on Protection of the Population from Infectious Diseases, this could be resolved quite simply, and then Article 308 could be applied, enforcement prior to finality.

A misdemeanor warrant is some sort of solution, but it gives the possibility to defer the enforcement of the penalty, which provides someone with the opportunity to calculate with the punishment. If what I am talking about would be applied - then it is enforcement prior to finality. Working hours will be as long as they will be; I think that is not the most important thing, but the moment when working hours should end means that every following minute implies drastic sanctioning in terms of cumulative penalty. I do not plead to talk about punishment – whether it will be only fines and imprisonment or imprisonment only. Believe me, in the period when I was working as a judge of the Misdemeanor Court and a judge of the Misdemeanor Appellate Court, such methods of resolution were extremely effective. It may not be the public's expectation that the Protector of Citizens will say this, but I repeat - the Protector of Citizens protects the largest majority that adheres to all measures, and there is no reason for them to bear the consequences of non-compliance of a small or minimum number of those who absolutely do not want to consciously adhere to measures or laws. And in that way, they trigger a domino effect, and that is infections of whole families and the death of whole families.

When we talk about working shorter hours, again, what you say is your role and function to protect citizens, but we can also look at it from two sides. As citizens or beneficiaries of some services, but also as citizens or providers of some services. I refer to traders, caterers, hoteliers and others, everyone's life and survival depends.

We absolutely share that opinion, I am even in favor of extending the working hours of hospitality businesses until 10 pm, but whoever keeps the facility open at 10:01 or who deliberately keeps working and violates measures, should be drastically punished or a large number of people. They should be punished in such a way that this penalty objectively hurts, and it only hurts in such situations when the penalty is imposed immediately and when it is enforced immediately.

That means - we will enable both, but whoever breaks, the sanction will be extremely high.

Absolutely, in that way you will first relax them so that they can do their job longer because we see what is happening in West European countries. I’m constantly in contact with Ombudspersons in Europe and I know very well how citizens react to what is officially called lockdown. They react very badly; you even have the fact that many want to come to Serbia in order to relax a bit from that way of life.

And get a vaccine.

And get a vaccine if that's the goal, but those who knowingly violate the measures, there cannot be negligence. You can't involuntary keep the facility open until 1, 2 am or have 200, 300 people sitting there.

The organizer of a certain gathering is knowingly breaking, but 100, 200, 300, 400 people who are there also do so, which means that everyone should bear the consequences.

I absolutely said that it applied to everyone, but the heavier consequence should be borne by the one who organized it.

The last year has, of course, affected every segment of our lives, how did it affect the work of the Protector of Citizens. What is it that has changed?

The change was seen in a large number of complaints in the period from March to summer, from curfew or ban on movement, and it continued throughout the summer and even today. However, today that number of cases has somewhat decreased in relation to the number that appeared during the state of emergency.

Were there any specific appeals that were not so common before?

Not only that there were specific appeals but there were specific situations, from the fact that the Protector of Citizens in contact with Ombudspersons in the region should have enabled our people to return to the country first, so that they would not have to go through everything they did go through by moving through quarantines in one country and then in another; then there was a very important issue of labor relations, more precisely reports on the grounds of labor relations. What particularly interested me was the ban on visiting the close ones during the state of emergency.

Which was the case in many countries in Europe.

Yes, it was. But if you have someone who asks for and has to get custodial care and assistance and his family cannot visit them at a time when it is banned - we had to solve it and we did solve it successfully. The same goes for parents who needed to visit children on the weekends, that is, their children and it was not possible. Indeed, with very good cooperation, I must say, with the Government of the Republic of Serbia, with the Prime Minister in particular, we managed to solve such problems.

Has the coronavirus brought any problems to you as the Protector of Citizens?

It has brought a problem, if you think of it as a problem; to work from 8 am to 10 pm; to organize work in your own institution to be truly accessible to all citizens who call in. Citizens called very often, we recorded about 3,800 phone calls in that short period alone.

What did citizens most often complain about?

Freedom of movement primarily, this was the predominant complaint.

And when did that stop?

Then came the rights from labor relations, everything that could pose a problem for people as a result of the coronavirus.

Where did you most often intervene on your own initiative in the previous months?

Whenever something appears, that’s why I would like to thank all the media in the Republic of Serbia, because we most often reacted to things from the news we hear in the media. We reacted by first checking those allegations found in those media, and then we reacted to each of those situations.

What were the most common cases, can you single anything out?

I can't point out anything because that would be favoring some of the cases; there were all possible situations, mostly socio-economic areas. They are essentially interwoven into many complaints, into many difficult situations in which certain groups of citizens find themselves.

Where was the most non-compliance with the law, who did not abide by it?

Who turned a blind eye to the law and the Regulation? This is most often in local self-government units. The local self-government is what this virus has practically denied us, to visit more often and check how they work. Citizens most often complain about local self-government activities.

And they are, by the way, bound by law to cooperate with the Protector.

The law is explicit here, everyone is obliged to cooperate with the Protector of Citizens, except the ones specified by the Constitution, who we are not entitled to control. Some have turned a blind eye, either by not responding to what we tell them they have to rectify. Then you do it until they rectify it and you insist and you have to be extremely persistent to make it happen.

What is their answer for turning a blind eye?

There is no answer, they’re mostly silent. They don't answer you, and then you send again, then you send urgently. So, the new Law on the Protector of Citizens, which I hope will be in the parliamentary procedure very soon, allows the Protector of Citizens to, by shortening such deadlines, especially when it comes to emergencies, and this is assessed by the Protector of Citizens, the institution, react immediately, promptly with more drastic ways, when someone turns a blind eye to what the Protector of Citizens asks of them. And he rightly asks for that, having previously checked all the facts and with applicable evidence.

In late November last year, you stated that the pandemic had increased the risk of violence against women. Unfortunately, the pandemic has continued. What’s the situation now?

Yes, it is still the same worldwide, because people are referred to each other and people who are experts on the subject talk about it, in special, psychological conditions in which people are living, all sorts of violence are escalating. And domestic violence is one of the most common forms of violence. This begs the question of domestic violence victims’ protection. The Protector of Citizens has initiated and will continue to initiate and insist with local governments to provide all women, and the few men, who are victims of domestic violence, free of charge, mandatory examination in forensic institutes in order to link the evidence, so as not to have the situation that the victim changes the statement during the proceedings for any reason or that perpetrator is released due to the lack of evidence. It is a much worse message to all perpetrators to either not be punished or to be punished with lower punishments.

We look a little at the consequences, and maybe we should fixate on the causes.

The causes are the most important here. If we look at the consequences, then we can go to see women in prisons who reacted in such a way that after years of violence they decided to solve it radically, you know what I mean or what we see very often and that is that victims of domestic violence pass down that experience, and that it can be passed down for generations.

The news that gripped media attention here was the case of Mr. Mika Aleksić, who is suspected of raping, sexually harassing his students. According to the court's decision, Aleksić is in custody, his pre-trial detention expired, after which the court decided to prolong it until mid-March. You received a complaint by his lawyer.

The Protector of Citizens as an institution cares for all citizens with no desire to prejudge a possible court decision. There are so-called assumptions and presumptions of innocence. We will visit Mr. Aleksić as soon as tomorrow, of course if permitted to do so, although we are entitled to do it under our Law, to see the nature of these complaints. I talked with his lawyer, the complaints were related to the part that we cannot control, that is the work of the judiciary, but we will hear from Mr. Aleksić what he has to say to us.

A few days ago, we aired a story on our television about the problems that a Rwandan citizen who married our citizen had. Of course, it was about administration, paperwork and there were many problems. You made a statement at one point and said, we will resolve it as soon as possible. Was that resolved?

It was resolved and I thank the media because most of our investigations are not based on complaints but on our own initiative or information that we learn from the media. The point here is that a married couple with a child should have applied to the Department for Foreigners, because the Law on Foreigners in Article 61 provides for the possibility to allow a stay on the so-called humanitarian grounds. There are exactly listed the reasons why, colloquially speaking, the family would not split. We spoke to police representatives who told us that no such request had been made at all until that day but that the husband had also been told what to do. He did that and she was allowed to stay, with the fact that that stay is allowed for a year or less, and it should be extended 3 months prior to, and no later than 30 days until the expiration of the residence permit.

I have one final question. You have been in the position of the Protector of Citizens for almost 4 years, is there anything that have not yet managed to solve?

Of course, there is an essential point, and that is that the citizens of the Republic of Serbia know that they should always turn to the Protector of Citizens, and that the Protector of Citizens will always respond in a situation when it is possible.

You don’t think they know it?

They don’t. I was astonished, when I took this office, that the citizens don’t know at all what the Protector of Citizens does. Through visiting all places in Serbia, meeting citizens, speaking in the media, I really endeavored to convey the message – approach the Protector of Citizens. We knew about the case you mentioned, they are countless. We have gone towards the citizens, and they didn’t go towards us. We wish that citizens go towards us and we will solve all the cases that we are entitled to solve under the Law. We hope that through the amendments to the law, we will be provided with a very wide range of possibilities.

Do you respond to every complaint that you receive by e-mail or phone call?

We respond to every complaint, but I insist on, if the circumstances permit it, mandatorily making the phone call to the complainant or invite them. I do it myself; I call the complainant, talk to them and see where we can really help as an Institution. If we cannot do it for any reason –the statute of limitations ran out, not within our competence, you need to say that to the citizens regardless of the fact that it causes resentment of those persons. However, other than in this way, you can’t communicate with the citizens, when in this function.

Thank you very much for being our guest today.