The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest in the show "Day Live" on N1 Television.
At the beginning of the summer, the public was shocked by the "Forgotten Children of Serbia" report by the organization "Disability Rights International" and the Initiative for the Rights of Persons with Mental Disabilities, which states that Serbia has failed to address serious human rights violations in institutions, which represent inhuman and degrading treatment. A team was formed, several ministries, which was supposed to investigate whether there are cases of severe neglect and lack of health care in those institutions, which are risky for the life and health of the child. Zoran Pašalić, the Protector of Citizens, was also in that team, and he is also our guest on "Day Live". Hello and thank you for your time for N1. As we have heard, and perhaps some have forgotten, that is what it looked like. After this report, the ministry immediately started visiting the homes. Did you visit those homes and what is your impression in relation to what is stated in this report?
- Our regular activity, both as the National Preventive Mechanism, which is a part of our institution that deals with precisely this issue, and in other segments of our institution, is precisely the tour and control of such institutions. After the report that you mentioned, I personally visited those homes where it was pointed out that the conditions were the worst – it was "Kolevka" in Subotica and it was Veternik. I was in Veternik several times, but I wanted to see if those reports were accurate, to what extent they were accurate, whether there were any improvements or worsening from the previous visit, so we spent more than one working day in each of those homes, an entire day, so to say. What I have to point out is that we always have a forensic expert in our team with us. We can't control all 500 children, but let's say for an interval of some 9-10 hours, a large number of children are controlled, especially those who are in such a health, physical and mental condition that an injury may have occurred, regardless, not to prejudge the cause of the injuries, and we found the situation that we found.
And what was the situation?
- I can say that the situation in those homes is extremely, extremely good. The first thing that indicates that is contact with those children. Children do not know how to lie, especially on that, I apologize for having to say so, on that mental and physical level. And the most important thing is that they are really very, very satisfied, if I may say so, with their stay there. I have to emphasize…
Maybe they don't know better.
- …I must emphasize that the visit was unannounced, so no one could get ready, eliminate some shortcomings, no one expected us to come, there was a circle of maybe three or four of us who knew about it. You say that maybe they don't know better, but you see, they have living conditions that are such that there really isn’t anything degrading about them, in terms of accommodation, care for them, nutrition, dealing with those children in every way, everyone is doing a good job, from speech therapists, physiotherapists, to special educators and the rest of the staff. It would be really hard for the children to have that in a different environment. My different opinion is about the relocation of these children to primary families – it certainly should be done, but only when certain conditions are met.
The report states, let’s remind ourselves, that in some homes, children are in metal beds that look like cages, convulsed, with thin limbs, that children were found wrapped in self-adhesive tape, hitting themselves and crying, etc. These are probably scenes that you could not come across even on an unannounced visit. How did you experience the conditions in which they live? Is there a chance that these conditions may have even been improved during that time, since, I do not know how long it took from the publication of the report to your visit?
- It has been several years since the photos were published in public, as far as I know, and they are several years old. I visited the home in Veternik a couple of months ago, and before that, a year ago, and there were significant improvements. And those photos, I don't think they illustrate the absolute state. Certainly, they upset the public the most. I have to say, they are children…
We don't know where those photos came from, since they were in the report…
- You will find those photos in each of these homes. Let me just indicate a difference. In "Kolevka", children stay up to the age of 18, so they are, let's say, small children. From the age of 18 onwards…
They are in "Kolevka" until they are 18?
- Until the age of 18 they are in "Kolevka", from the age of 18 onwards they are in Veternik. There are often people there who are over 40 years old, there are not many of them, but there are some, which means that they should be placed in homes for adults. This was one of our objections, that these people were not relocated, they were not relocated to homes for the adults, although there is a significant difference between the situation in homes for children and adults. I still haven’t visited Blace, we received certain complaints, so I think I will go there very soon, but I will not say when exactly because the visits are unannounced. We heard that the situation is as it is over there, but until I see it, I will not give any information. When you take pictures of children whose physiological status is such that they are immobile, then it really creates a picture that is not at all pleasant to look at. What we control is whether the children have injuries that can occur when they are tied up, when those children are, as they say, being manipulated, using, perhaps, some physical force, and whether these beds in which they spend almost 24 hours a day are equipped with everything they need so they can normally move and turn around – whether they have anti-decubitus mattresses, whether their positions are physiological. I am not the one who says this, I am not an expert in that, but the forensic doctor says it.
Another thing that, as stated in this report, left a strong impression is the position of women and children with disabilities in social care institutions, it is stated that they are exposed to birth control, i.e., being given birth control pills in order not to get pregnant, most likely through unwanted sexual intercourse with someone.
- I would not interpret that now – unwanted or wanted. What was one of our remarks, for example, when we performed the control in Sremčica some time ago, is that it is necessary for every home to have, if not a permanently employed gynecologist, then at least frequent visits of a gynecologist, and not to go towards the variant that we are now researching fully, whether, according to these findings, women are given contraceptives, or whether they can be found in their bodies, because if that is being done, it is certainly against their will.
You said yourself that in the home in Sremčica it was established that a gynecologist should exist, which means that…
- …We have established that there isn’t a gynecologist there, now I do not know if lately one was employed or if a gynecologist is obliged to come to constant visits since there isn’t one there already, in order to determine the condition of those children. Why is…
This means that in fact, now we do not know whether these people were subjected…
- Look, I feel really uncomfortable talking about this.
I'm just wondering if that means we still haven't established whether these women and girls were given some kind of birth control without their will, not knowing…
- We will establish that. I said we will establish that with toxicological findings. What is very important is that there has been information in the public that these people are practically forced to have sexual intercourse. That is the information that came to me, which I learned from the media. People need to know that there are certain atavistic reactions in that population related to food and sexual intercourse and that, even when they are willing, they need to be controlled, in order to avoid creating regular situations in which someone is abusing contraceptives to avoid the mentioned types of problems, I mean those who work in homes, who organize the stay or those who manage those homes, and instead, preventive actions are needed in such situations.
You think that it should be introduced in order to…
- No, not introduced. Constant gynecological examinations are needed, which would indicate possible pregnancies or other possible situations, and prevent them.
This means that someone is still doing it, without that person being aware of it?
- I cannot tell you without proof. I am saying that we are dealing with this at the moment, and that we will publish the results, now we only have information, and we do not work on the basis of information but on the basis of proven facts.
Let's move on to another institution that upset the public this summer, and that is Petnica. You asked for a control, that is, you asked to find out what was happening in Petnica. Did you get any response from the Ministry of Education? As you stated right here on N1, you have not established how the Ministry of Education can control Petnica, but did you learn anything from Petnica itself?
- We will publish the overall results which are very, very detailed. First, I stated in some media that Petnica was not organized in the seventies by the ministry, but that it was, in a way, an association. Just as you and I and the gentleman who is filming us, the three of us can form an association based on our three ID cards. Then, we were very interested in financing – who finances them and how, who is on the Steering Committee, where does the money go that comes not only from the state but also from private donors, all in relation to the work of Petnica. We are still waiting for some results and we will publish the report in its entirety. So, not only in the sense of this unpleasant event, and that is the abuse of the girls who were in Petnica. I think it's a matter for the prosecution and that the Protector of Citizens cannot say much about it, but everything about program development, program financing, referral of children, the reaction of the school that had to provide data, the questions that were asked to those children in order to enroll, all that is more the job for the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, but we also deal with it because we believe that some things were violated. And when we assess one such institution that is very important, we will go into detail and we will publish it. I don't know how much some people will like it, but the results will be accurate and established on evidence.
The point is not for somebody to like that, but to find out the truth. And talking about what was published, you published a report on what you learned about domestic violence that happened near Cacak.
- Yes, in Zablace.
What did you find out in the end? Yes, it was Zablace, the case of a murder of a woman, a child and the suicide of the person who did it.
- The genesis of that event is long. And, let's not give any recommendations in advance until we determine everything in detail. They have few more days to declare themselves, but the Center for Social Work in Cacak certainly could not make a conclusion only on the basis of that event, that is, previous events, because the genesis of that violence is very, very long. That is also true for the perpetrator’s attitude towards the family. Many of them knew that the relations in the family were such. We will see if the reactions were absent, to what extent they were absent and who is to blame for it ending like this. But if I may take some time, given that since 2003, I have been dealing with domestic violence as a phenomenon, protection of victims, while I was still working with misdemeanor proceedings, I honestly beg citizens not to turn their heads away when they see violence happening near them, just because it doesn’t concern them directly. I remember one murder in New Belgrade in 2005, which was really monstrous, where, studying that issue, I had the privilege of asking the tenants from that building if the violence had happened before, and they said yes. Well, why didn't you report it? Well, we thought it was a matter of family relations.
Yes, but on the other hand, here we come across the fact that some cases of violence are reported to centers for social work and reported to the police…
- And then they do not react.
Exactly. Which is probably why you sent such a request for information, what can be done on that issue in the future? The victims are not protected.
- Someone is certainly responsible, but I do not want to prejudge whose responsibility it is, but it is certainly someone. Because, I repeat, this phenomenon, this situation in Zablace, has a very long history.
That man even had a ban on approaching the woman from the police, which means that the police in some way did not…
- That's right, he did have a ban on approaching her and we instructed the police to inform us what they had done. Because, as it is known, the law is clear about what the ban on approaching means, how the police should act there. There are sanctions in both misdemeanor and criminal law. In what way they are imposed, that is a matter for the court, but we will also be informed about it, regardless of the fact that we cannot control the work of the courts. But we can get the information we are interested in to have a clearer picture.
One more thing about the police, but this time about the one in Zemun. It is about an incident at an exhibition in the Old Captaincy. You also asked the police to find out what happened. Did you get any response from the police?
- And to punish those who are responsible, considering that the possibility of violence was announced and that there was not an adequate number of officials who would prevent that. So far, the police have questioned five out of ten participants present, i.e., the perpetrators, but in our opinion, and this is also our recommendation, those responsible in the police must be sanctioned because they did not adequately respond to the warnings that arrived a few days before the event.
Do you have any information that something has been done, since…
- Unfortunately, just today, coming to your show, I calculated that the information would not arrive until the end of September. That is the deadline for declaring under the old law.
Okay. To explain what this is about – you asked for the responsibility of the police officers for omissions in their work to be established, and also to…
- And to punish those who made those omissions, that is, did not respond adequately, given that there was information that this could happen.
In fact, a police officer who failed to notify a superior officer of a threat report. So…
This could have been avoided if someone in the police had reacted. You were also on an unannounced visit to the Police Administration in Smederevo. Why?
- It is our regular job, our regular activity of the National Preventive Mechanism and the Emergency Service, we did not do that upon a report. I'm talking about the police station, that is, about Velika Plana. We were also in the prison in Smederevo. Today I talked to a colleague, my deputy Natasa Tanjevic, who is in charge of that segment of the National Preventive Mechanism, and the results of the prison control are yet to come, and as for the results of the police station control, I can say, and I am not praising anyone in particular, but the situation in the police station is very good, if you do not count the accommodation capacities that are bad, that need to be renovated. But the attitude of the police towards the prisoners, the detainees, we did not find any omissions, which in certain police stations… As for the prison in Smederevo, it was a little more extensive control.
I have to ask you about a person who is employed by you, Dragana Grabovica, a civil servant who claims that she addressed everyone, as well as that she also addressed N1 Television. She claims that there was an alleged mobbing in your office, since she was transferred to another job, although you personally praised her. She was transferred to another job where she feels that she does not have a specific job. Have you tried to solve this situation and how do you see the fact that a woman who is employed by you has to seek intervention from some other institutions, even the media?
- I don't know why she is seeking intervention from some other institutions. Ever since I came to the institution, when I was appointed the Protector of Citizens, all employees have known very well that my doors are always open for employees, both during working hours and outside working hours. Certainly, some daily obligations may delay the possibility for me to talk with them at the very moment when someone wants to talk. I did not want to comment on that case, but here, you will have the exclusivity. I am always ready to praise someone's work and effort, but I am also ready to adequately call out someone for his inaction or bad behavior. I do not want to go into details here, they are the subject of disciplinary proceedings against some persons and institutions that have failed. You see, the institution of the Protector of Citizens, which deals with the protection of citizens from the silence of the administration, when a citizen comes and complains that an administrative body does not act on his case or request for several years, cannot have the same problem within the institution itself, where there are some cases that my colleagues and I found through control, that are from 2017, 2018. Looking for the person responsible for why no one had acted for several years, we came up with some names. I will not prejudge what is the subject of the proceedings. Secondly, the colleague is now in the press service, at a position where she monitors information related to the texts on the Protector of Citizens. This is not empty table mobbing. She is not doing the work that she did, but she is doing a job adequate to her education, which is very important.
Did she do something wrong?
- No, she didn't do anything wrong. Mind you, the institution of the Protector of Citizens is an institution that must be flexible, especially the department in which the colleague worked, which is the department for receiving parties. About 90 percent of the people who contact us want a conversation where they will personally explain the problem and the documentation they have. She used to do that, now she doesn't do that job, she does another job where she is free from that kind of contact, but where we don't think her dignity is endangered because she is doing a job which is adequate to her education for years and I don't see why anyone would be endangered there.
Okay, I hope you will solve that in any case.
- You see, there is another moment here, and that is – my position on the work of the institution of the Protector of Citizens is that we have to go towards the citizens, I said that when I took the oath, that I will open the institution for all citizens and that I, as well as our employees, will always be there, at the service of the citizens. Otherwise, why the institution?
In the end, let me just ask you something about the Draft Law on the Protector of Citizens, how will it affect your work and your powers?
- There are two things that I don't think will be in the new law, I'm almost certain of it. One refers to the salaries of employees, not to the salaries of the Protector of Citizens and his deputies, but to employees. I think that the salaries are inadequate for the employees of the Protector of Citizens, because those who perform serious controls of someone cannot be paid less than the ones they control. It doesn't exist anywhere. That is one of our suggestions. We were promised that the amendments to the Law on Civil Servants would regulate this in a better way. We will see, we will wait. The second is the possibility of controlling the court administration, because we believe that it is necessary and important. Also, we did not invent it, to say so colloquially, many institutions that deal with the protection of human rights, meaning ombudsmen, protectors of citizens, people's lawyers, can do that. The problem here is within the constitution, but we will not give up on it because over 50, 60 percent of the appeals to the Protector of Citizens are exactly the complaints about the work of courts in terms of the right to a fair trial, length of proceedings and non-enforcement of court decisions.
Thanks a lot for your time for N1.