Protector of Citizens Mr. Zoran Pašalić guest in the "Morning Program" of the public broadcasting service Radio Television Serbia (RTS)
The latest is probably the fact that you have presented the Report on the implementation of the Law on Preventing Domestic Violence, saying on that occasion that you advocate that the victims be provided with an urgent check-up by a forensic doctor in order to determine right away the evidence regarding the committed offence. To whom precisely did you propose that and how is it going?
This call has been around for a long time, it is a Protector of Citizens’ plea to local self-governments to allocate certain funds so that both women and men, since men have also experienced violence, can undergo a proper free of charge check-up by forensic doctors in order to adequately determine the link between the act of violence and the consequences. Why? I have been addressing this problem for quite some time and what I have established, studying not only what is happening in Serbia but worldwide, is that women or men victims of violence are in such a situation that they often change their statement in court, sometimes defending the one who committed the violence. The only way to, as it is legally said, "link the evidence" is to perform a proper forensic examination and it should be free of charge. When someone experiences domestic violence, if he/she has injuries, he/she goes to the emergency service, injuries are identified, but no link is established that would be decisive or very important in court to convict the perpetrator and thus prevent him/her from continuing to commit violence.
Apart from this call, did you suggest it to anyone else, to any institution that could include it in the law or some other acts?
It’s not about a Law, it’s about local self-governments’ good will, and primarily the regional centers where there are forensic medicine institutes, but other towns as well where there are forensic medicine experts. What’s more, the funds that would be set aside would be used for the training of both the police and prosecutors and all those who get into contact with domestic violence victims. We had talks with all these institutions that I have listed and there is a great interest in doing this as soon as possible. I feel the need to highlight once again; no large funds need to be allocated or anything else that would burden local self-governments’ budget.
However, essential to this issue is training people who work with victims to know how to act. You also said at the presentation of that report that domestic violence, which was somehow a private matter, was actually a public matter, that it was a social problem. It is by no means a problem that happens within four walls and ends there. Who should hear that, institutions or citizens, how to dissuade the neighbors from turning a blind eye when they know that a husband is beating his wife next door?
Back in 2003, I started dealing with this issue through my work in the Misdemeanor Court, so, recognizing victims of domestic violence and protecting them. It is often considered a private event, a private matter of the family and no one wants to interfere, not realizing that in this way a very broad circle of violence is created, which later escalates. Through studies, we noticed that it can be passed on from generation to generation, and because of that, society must pay attention, it is not a private matter, it is a matter of the entire community.
What have the citizens mostly complained about over the previous few months, from the beginning of the year and the pandemic? Perhaps domestic violence augmented as people were locked down in the house, nervousness and anger reached their peak? Generally speaking, what are the topics they have complained about the most over the last few months?
This program would be short just to enlist the topics, let alone to talk about each one. It all depends on the phase. Firstly, there was a big problem about the return of our citizens to the Republic of Serbia, then their stay both in quarantine and in some kind of home isolation, and finally the most significant problem was the possibility of movement or prohibition of movement. In particular, some of that is related to domestic violence, that is the inability of the victim to escape from the perpetrator during the lockdown. We reacted at once and we saw confirmation of our beliefs that there must be another solution and it was resolved differently, so the victim was able to leave the family regardless of the lockdown.
What’s the way of reacting to those situations: someone calls you and says because of the epidemic measures they do not permit me to leave the house and I believe that my rights are endangered, the right to move, for example?
It is one form when someone individually addresses us and files a complaint. There is also another way, and we learned from the media about numerous issues that we considered should be corrected or rectified.
Recently, something that you reacted on was that Social Welfare Center in Sokobanja has been working for more than a year without social workers. What’s happening there?
Here, we launched an investigation against both of the ministries, the competent ones – the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Finance that needs to provide funds as social welfare centers are practically in crisis situations and citizens firstly communicate to social welfare centers any problem they have. This is why, it is crucial that the centers operate, that they are adequately staffed and that they can meet the citizens’ needs.
For some time now, the media, and then Dr. Predrag Kon mentioned it, have been speculating about the actual number of deaths in relation to what was reported as official. Did you feel the need to react and initiate the investigation?
In that case, we initiate an investigation that goes to determine to what extent the alleged numbers correspond to the truth, that is, the right numbers and the right indicators. It is not an easy process because there is a big problem worldwide, so to say, regarding the delineation into those who died for some other reasons and those who died from Covid-19. That investigation is still in progress and we will publish the results upon the completion, that is, when they are reached.
The investigation during the protests in July when the results were in Belgrade and some other cities, you then said that there was excessive use of force in individual cases, but that there was no systemic police violence over citizens. A few cases, if I'm not mistaken, you've investigated seven cases and we've never heard the results of those investigations.
Not only seven, many more cases were investigated because two teams of the Protector of Citizens were on field the one that addressing emergencies since there is not greater emergency than such situations and the other one is the NPM - National Preventive Mechanism, which in situations when someone is being deprived or was deprived of liberty checks whether it is done pursuant to the law and the rules of service. There were many omissions identified, you have listed the most drastic ones. The report that we compiled, which is quite extensive, on all this, was sent to the Ministry of Interior, and what I have to explain is that we cannot launch an investigation in the sense that might be expected. Either the Internal Control of the Police does this or, I know that this is also the case, the Prosecutor's Office when criminal acts have been committed through excessive use of force. That statement of mine was also obvious on the field because we were there, I was there, we checked what was happening, and we were not tagged because if what is happening is happening on both sides, you must definitely be exposed to some kind risk. There was criticism that we had police security but we didn’t. On the contrary, we didn’t want to be visible from the very reason that if we had been visible we might not have seen what we saw.
But what did you see, was there an excessive use of force?
There was excessive use of force, as I said, but there was no systemic repression. I keep explaining what systemic repression means - it means that someone deliberately uses force against peaceful demonstrators in order to break up demonstrations. There was violence on both sides, and in a certain number of cases, that violence led to exceeding the authority, that is, to excessive use of force. That will certainly be sanctioned.
But we saw a man with a fractured head, journalists who certainly did not provide resistance.
This is a specific question for journalists. I also talked to the press about that. In principle, journalists do not want to be visibly tagged with some protective vests or in some other way because they think that in that way they are also the target of someone who is not a fan of, say, that media company, you at RTS know that very well. Then, unfortunately, anything may happen in that crowd.
Just briefly, does the report you issued to the MOI mean that the investigation is completed?
It has not been completed, we are waiting for the results of those to whom we have sent, and that is the Internal Police Control and, where we cannot interfere in the work, the Prosecutor's Office, but we are monitoring the work in cases where charges may be or have already been brought.
A few weeks prior to the protests, there were citizens complaining that people with torches climbed the roofs of their buildings without their approval, that they called the police and the municipal police and that they did not respond to their calls?
It did not just happen in Belgrade, it happened in Novi Sad as well. We reacted and received a report which comes down to misdemeanor charges submitted to the police and misdemeanor proceedings against persons without distinguishing between torches or a ban on movement, and that is what poses the problem in that investigation. We seek and we will insist on it, even though it is a long investigation, to delineate those who have only violated the ban on movement from the others who did what they did.
Finally, let me ask you, you have been at the head of the institution of the Protector of Citizens for more than three years; is it a job of talking to people or paperwork, administration or life?
I don't think "at the head" is the best wording, the Protector of Citizens is more appropriate. Thank you for this question. When I took over the position, I said - not paperwork but life. I said that I would open the doors, we went all over Serbia countless times and talked to the citizens, we did that in the Institution as well, but unfortunately it is now a bit tight due to the epidemic, but it is precisely a discussion with citizens, both individually and in groups, who address us with certain requests and demands.