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From the media

The organizers of child begging in Serbia have not been prosecuted over the previous year and a half, and hundreds of children "work" on the central streets of all major cities every day. Individual cases of "begging" have, however, been before the misdemeanor courts but only 1,135 were processed in a year and a half, and with six cases for so-called group begging, the Protector of Citizens, Mr. Zoran Pašalić has pointed out in a statement for Tanjug.

Noting that this is a very small number of cases in relation to reality, Mr. Pašalić emphasized that there were minors among the processed persons, and parents were responsible for children under 16, and it was known exactly in which terms and intervals in the year and in which locations it was done, said Pašalić, noting that these were the places where the largest number of citizens moved.

He believes that in order to solve this problem, and in order to protect child interests, better cooperation between the competent institutions is necessary, and he points out that child rights protection and the protection of children themselves is a priority for the Office of the Protector of Citizens.

Therefore, as he stated, the Office of the Protector of Citizens issued a recommendation to the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy to declare null and void the instruction from 2018, which instructed social welfare centers that children who work on the streets and engage in begging should be taken away from their parents in court proceedings, i.e. referred to home accommodation or foster families.

“We think that this was not the best solution because child interests are not protected there. Begging is not just a misdemeanor, and often children who are engaged in begging come from extremely poor families, which is why each case should be observed individually," Mr. Pašalić said explicitly.

He added that each case should be observed individually and consider whether it was an extremely poor family that had no choice but to beg or for children to beg, or it was something else in question. "I may freely name the latter 'organized crime.' I would not like to start qualifying it as a misdemeanor, a crime of human trafficking or something else. The essence is that child interests are a priority ", the Protector of Citizens emphasized.

Regarding a large number of "street children", the Protector of Citizens was provided an explanation from the Ministry of Labor that they do not have good cooperation with the police and the communal militia on this issue. “If there is a problem in the cooperation, we will seek its improvement. We request that each case of a child who is engaged in begging be viewed separately", said Mr. Pašalić.

Noting that re-occurrence in begging (repetition of the same offense by the same persons) is extremely common, he believes that repeated occurrence would be prevented precisely by observing each of these cases individually in order to determine the causes of why these children are on the street and engaged in street work.

When it comes to social welfare centers, whose actions are often criticized by his Office, the Protector of Citizens stated that they mostly emphasized the understaffing and poor working conditions for the shortcomings in their work. "We do not think that this is the only cause, but we believe that according to the number of cases or such an environment where a larger number of cases is expressed, the Ministry of Labor should provide for a larger number of employees, so that they can cope with persons in need of social welfare", stated Mr. Pašalić.

According to the data of the Ministry of Labor, which were submitted to the Protector of Citizens, based on periodic reports of the social welfare centers, in Serbia in the past period, protection was provided for a total of 96 "street children". Twenty of them were placed in a foster family, 44 children in homes for children without parental care or a reception center, and 28 children were taken away from their parents and court proceedings were initiated to deprive their parents of their parental rights. Also, relocation from the family is planned for four children because interventions in training parents to adequately exercise parental rights did not have a positive outcome.

With 82 families and 11 minors, it is planned and, the process is on track, to set up parental competence, so that children could stay in their family environment, and 67 families are being monitored by the guardianship authorities at the social welfare centers.

Mr. Pašalić says that in addition, he insists on adequate protection of "street children" and draws attention to the need for more efficient prosecution of those who organize the work of those children on the street and their more drastic punishment ", because, as he reminded," in a year and a half no report has been filed against the organizers".

The Law on Public Order and Peace provides for a fine for individual begging of 5,000 to 10,000 dinars or imprisonment for up to 30 days, and in the case of a crime committed in a group of three or more persons, a fine of 10,000 to 30,000 dinars is imposed or imprisonment for up to 30 days.

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.

The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, in an interview for the Radio Belgrade broadcast - Radio Belgrade 1 Magazine (Magazin na Prvom)

With the epidemics’ outbreak, various problems arose. Since the coronavirus emerged in our country, you have warned that the number of citizens' complaints on different grounds is on the rise. At the outset, what did the citizens mostly complain about?

Exactly. During the state of emergency, the Secretariat, my Deputies and myself worked, I may freely say, sometimes until midnight, since the number of complaints augmented manifold. It is not possible to generalize what was prevalent, the topics were changeable and referred to the problems as they arose and appeared. Our priority was to ensure the return of our citizens from abroad, and how to implement mandatory quarantine upon return - whether at home or in some institutions. Then, as the number of patients increased, we received complaints regarding the protection of rights not only in the area of health care but also the right to communicate with relatives, e.g. if they are not able to have contact due to poor health then the health institutions should provide for the communication so that their relatives are acquainted with their health status. Furthermore, the fact that the citizens’ movement was restricted prevailed in practice. In that respect, certain exceptions needed to be made, primarily beneficiaries of custodial care who were alone during the weekend when there was an absolute ban on movement, then parents who have the right to see their children over the weekend. We have addressed these problems and solved them. Then, employment relations rights, such as the right to work from home for reasons stated under the Government’s Decree. Everything was very intensified then, and after the state of emergency, when the citizens relaxed a bit, we solved citizens’ problems regarding travelling, going abroad, everything that resulted from the state of emergency, not only regarding health care but also regarding the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the UN Convention on Human Rights.

To solve any of these problems, you had to cooperate with the state authorities, as they are competent for solving the problems you have point out. What was that cooperation like?

Thank you very much for this question. The Protector of Citizens cannot in confrontation with state authorities resolve issues of citizens, both individual and systemic. There must be two-way cooperation. If we request that something be changed, a regulation or a specific decision on certain issues, we can only request it from the administrative authorities. Some of them have been cooperative instantly, it makes no sense to praise only some of them, but indeed there were those where we waited for the cooperation to be established, where disorganization and bad working system delayed the problem resolution. We have always insisted on speediness, not at all costs, but we insisted on being prompt because these are citizens’ issues that needed to be resolved urgently since sometimes their own life and health depended on it, and sometimes the life and health of their loved ones.

Still, please tell us whom you had the most problems with?

There were problems with local self-governments because in some cases they lacked interest to solve local problems, which was often explained by lack of funds and understaffing. However, in a situation such as the epidemic that has caused problems for the entire world not just for us, we have insisted that the last resources an institution or a self-government has, need to be used, since it is no longer a matter of good or bad governance but a matter of, as I highlighted, the lives and health of people.

There were many problems within the competence of the Ministry of Labor, but it seems to me that you cooperated relatively well?

We did cooperate, sometimes well, sometimes not as well. It is not that I defend the Ministry of Labor, that Ministry has practically the largest number of problems related to such situations, along with the Ministry of Health. But, you need to take into consideration the other Ministries that are involved, practically all of them. In some respects, we have only insisted that the Government’s decisions be fully respected, and we also insisted on not delaying individual problem resolution. For example, when people are surprised by a decision and have not organized themselves to solve the problem (visiting relatives, parents who cannot take care of themselves, children) in such situations you need to be flexible, not the Institution of the Protector of Citizens, but they who need to implement it.

So, that, in the end, I hope, resulted in some good practice.

I am speaking about the situation when the epidemic peaked; at least we all thought that it peaked then. What I warned about when the state of emergency ended, participating personally in solving all those problems, is that citizens must not relax. It was often necessary to strike a balance between what rights are being derogated from - whether it encroaches on the domain of fundamental or broader human rights and - what may happen if we all relax, which, unfortunately, we eventually saw.

The coronavirus has not stopped ordinary problems that occur beyond extraordinary circumstances. You were obliged to react at that point as well, so you had to, for instance, indicate to a child negligence case from so to say socially marginalized families that may be one of the most recent examples. A very serious problem, it must not remain under the radar because we currently have the epidemic as the primary topic in the country.

You said it very well, I can understand that the lack of staff and resources can delay solving a problem, but I really cannot and will never understand that a problem that arises within someone's competencies, I refer to social welfare centers (SWCs) here, is not recorded. It happens that we find out from the media, I really thank them for that, about a problem and ask the SWC what exactly has been done to solve the problem, and they are often not familiar with the problem. This is impermissible and that is why we have insisted and will insist that all problems, in a certain area covered by SWC, must be recorded. It is not simple, but it is their role. How the problems can be solved, whether the centers can solve them on their own or the local self-government or the wider community should be engaged, or the citizens who have always responded to help calls should be called upon to help in solving problems, that is another issue. Prompt recording of these problems is needed and necessary.

The recording is just the beginning of problem solving, one cannot start without it?

That is right. When you record a problem then you will definitely try to find the best possible solution. If you are not able to, you address someone who is, and then you solve it.

These days, the latest case is the case of six abandoned children from Alibunar. We often get information from various parts of Serbia that SWCs had no knowledge. This is a systemic problem.

Exactly. Sometimes it happens that citizens look at the problem around them and do not react by reporting it to the competent institution because they do not know where to report it, but also because they are overwhelmed by their own problems. I kept emphasizing: we are available round the clock, our e-mail and emergency numbers are available, and I really urge the citizens, when such a problem is noticed if you think that all other doors and Institutions are closed, to contact us, we will find someone to contact and how to solve the problem.

You raised an important issue - penal policy in the cases of child begging. What is the problem there?

Begging in general is the problem, not only child begging. I worked in the Misdemeanor Court from 2009 to 2017, at which point I was appointed at this post. As a judge, and later as the President of the Misdemeanor Court, the highest court in that field, I insisted on it, and the statistics indicated it, that the one who specifically performs that particular so to say activity called “children working on the street” was always punished. Likewise, the organizers who you can certainly see if you pay attention are absolutely not prosecuted. The data are relevant for Belgrade only that is 1,153 cases of sentencing for begging under the Law on Public Peace and Order. Out of these, only six cases for group begging, and none of the organizers of all this was punished in either misdemeanor or criminal proceeding, although there are provisions that could be used in these cases.

Can we consider that as part of another criminal offence, which is human trafficking?

Yes. I insisted that, when amending the Law on the Protector of Citizens, which the Serbia is committed to under Chapter 23, it should be included that the national coordinator for monitoring the protection of prosecution and defense of citizens, potential human trafficking victims, will be under the competence of the Protector of Citizens. Since trafficking in terms of monitoring this phenomenon has been dealt with by misdemeanor courts since 2003, where I took part, although the bearers of all that were my colleagues who are working in misdemeanor courts today, and that is recognizing victims of human trafficking. Proceedings before misdemeanor courts are generally short and often someone who is not guilty of being in that position will appear. Another thing we insisted on was to change the work order given by the Ministry of Labor so that children up to 14 engaged in begging would be automatically removed from the biological family. Why? Because you have to, it is true that work is harder, more complex, but you have to individualize each case. Sometimes these children are victims, in any case, they are victims of the situation they are in, or of those, who organize the begging and sometimes they come from extremely poor families who really have no other way to eat than that, it is the only possible way. Every other point of view directly affects child rights protection, and as it is known, the Institution of the Protector of Citizens has an entire sector that handles child rights not only in this case but also on child violence cases and all those horrors that happened to our children starting from exploiting them for the purpose of begging to child prostitution, violence against children, forced labor, to the most tragic situations such as murder.

You deal with very difficult topics, that is your job, but also the problems in the society where we live. You mentioned that you have been the Protector of Citizens for three years; the second one in Serbia, the institution is relatively young and new. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved over those three years having in mind that you introduced some novelties like “Doors Open Days” with the citizens?

No. Firstly, the Law on the Protector of Citizens that I found does not meet the practical needs of citizens as it limits largely the Protector of Citizens regarding his operation. Secondly, cooperation with the institutions of the executive is in place but what we insisted on, due to a huge number of complaints regarding the work of the courts, is to be given the opportunity to control the court administration, meaning only the administration not the merits of each case, this is a limitation which restrains us. During the reception of citizens, certainly half of all addresses refer to the length of the procedure, non-execution of court decisions and the right to a fair trial. When you look at the statistics of the court in Strasbourg regarding our citizens’ applications, you will see that the largest number, over 70 percent, are precisely filed for the reasons I stated. Therefore, it is with great will that we approached the drafting of a new Law on the Protector of Citizens, which I hope will soon be publicly discussed. I want the widest possible public debate because we will probably hear what I may have missed, regarding what may be amended in the law, and eventually in the parliamentary procedure, and that we will then be able to work in much more detail. I want us to solve individual problems, and if those individual problems point to some systemic ones, such as e.g. the problem of "protected tenants", but also the owners of the apartments where they dwell. These are two very important problems for the City of Belgrade, you cannot just keep sending the letters to the institutions, but you must practically address the problem. We have solved the problem for one party, and we will solve the problem of the other one, as their interests differ. I singled out this particular example because it usually happens that if you solve a problem of one group, you raise a problem for another one.

Isn’t it the solution that you provide for systemic solutions that are supposed to be applied in general in that branch of the authority?

That is right – to make it the most simple. The Protector of Citizens has to indicate to both systemic omission by the administration and to systemic omission that are long lasting, some of them for years, thus indeed posing great problems to the citizens.

You said that you prepared a Draft of new Law; did you also prepare support for it, since it is eventually a political decision?

I cannot talk about it because I think that if we have pointed out certain problems, if we have received so to speak assurances from the Venice Commission, which gives practically the final word to our laws, as we, like all other European countries, are always under the scrutiny of Venice Commission, these are specific solutions for which everyone will realize that they can only do better, better work of the institution, more flexible possibility of Institution’s response in terms of shorter deadlines and faster reaction, and what is also important to citizens that is transparency, greater visibility of the problem. For example, in that Law, there could be a problem that during annual or periodic reports, the Assembly must hear both sides, which means the report of the Protector of Citizens, but also what is bad or good in that report regarding certain ministries, in certain areas of competencies and where we believe that it should be corrected in the short term or as soon as possible. For example, the Belgrade pollution problem, we insisted that the ministry was obliged to be very clear before the citizens and state: this and that problem arose for this and that reason, that part of that problem can be solved immediately, part in a few years and part for many years. If citizens do not know that and if they receive some partial information, as it happened during the state of emergency, then they are given the opportunity to react in a way that is not beneficial to them by listening to some other information that can often be arbitrary. Therefore, we insist that all this be seen directly in the Assembly when submitting reports and that everyone bears their share of responsibility.

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