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Withdrawal of the Draft Law on Internal Affairs in Serbia: The Prime Minister’s Gambit

Security camera in Belgrade; Photo: hiljade.kamera.rs

This article was originally published in Serbian.

When no one expected it, the Draft Law on Internal Affairs was withdrawn from the procedure for the second time within just one year. Just like a year ago, the government decided to take this step after fierce reactions from the civil sector, citizens and the opposition, who threatened to organize mass protests if the law is not withdrawn. And perhaps that move was due to a letter from a group of European parliamentarians who warned the Prime Minister that the introduction of a biometric surveillance system is unacceptable and prohibited in the European Union. The imposition of such a law would certainly slow down our journey to Europe even more, and most certainly the former people’s militia would become a non-people’s police under the control of the ruling party.

As announced on Monday, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić, “in consultation and agreement with the Minister of the Interior, Bratislav Gašić, ordered that the Draft Law on Internal Affairs be withdrawn from the adoption procedure”: “In accordance with all the discussions that, in the previous days, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia had with relevant organizations, the Draft Law on Internal Affairs will continue to be worked on through broad consultations. The goal is to clarify all doubts in the public and for everyone to understand the intent of the law, which is of particular importance for the safety of all citizens of the Republic,” the explanation stated.

As good as it is that the legal draft was withdrawn, the announcement “that everyone understands the intention” causes doubts and anxiety, as if the problem is of a lexical nature, and not the obvious intention to form a police apparatus that will not protect the people but the government.

Just as suddenly as this legal text appeared in the public eye, it was as suddenly withdrawn. A year ago, at Vučić’s request out of, as he said, formal reasons because “such an important law should not be passed six months before the elections”, the proposal of the Police Law was withdrawn, with the head of state remarking that “he had no idea what was in it.” But he still withdrew it.

The opposition and non-governmental organizations that deal with human rights and freedoms again, as they did a year ago, criticized the latest version of the law on the police with a list in the previous weeks, threatening with a widespread civil rebellion. The Prime Minister’s move surprised them even though they demanded the withdrawal of the draft law. MP Miroslav Aleksić welcomed this move by the Prime Minister with visible caution, stating that the proposed law was so bad that there was no other choice but to withdraw it and write a new one with the participation of all relevant factors. Which, it seems, is the sublimated attitude of all critics of the Draft, regardless of whether they are from the relevant profession, the civil sector or the opposition.

The general opinion is that this legal text would expand the powers of the police and reduce the rights of citizens. The draft contains numerous provisions that would have negative consequences for the privacy of citizens, the inviolability of the apartment would be violated because it would allows the police to break into apartments without a court decision, the police could detain citizens if they do not respond to any call. Filming of MUP members would be prohibited, they would wear uniforms without personal markings… The greatest outrage was caused by the restriction of the right to assembly and the introduction of video-biometric surveillance in public spaces.

(Un)freedom of assembly

The draft of the police law would put political freedom of assembly in danger, because it foresees that the Government could limit the freedom of assembly.

Vladica Ilić from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to withdraw the draft law and write it from the beginning. During a short public hearing, he pointed out some controversial provisions. Article 15 of the Draft Law stipulates that “If the Government deems that public order and peace cannot be protected otherwise, it may order the minister to order the police to prohibit movement in a certain public place.”

“This means that it enables political decision-making on political freedom, which should also serve for protesting against the Government,” Ilić points out.

Because the Government is left to assess (as in the case of the Pride Parade) when it can order a prohibition of movement. The draft law envisioned that the police could detain and arrest any “person who does not respond to a police summons.” The threat to citizens is expanded by the provision that provides for the indefinite detention of persons outside the premises of the MUP without a decision on detention. (Article 81) It is said that this detention lasts until the search is completed.

There is no doubt that the practice of detaining “suspicious persons” or politically inconvenient for the authorities continues, as evidenced by the cases of detention of Rada Trajković and Zdravko Ponoš, who were detained at border crossings without any explanation.

No protection against torture

The withdrawn Draft Law, as well as the current law, does not provide sufficient guarantees for the protection of citizens from torture and other forms of ill-treatment by police officers. Especially when it comes to the interrogating and questioning of persons in police premises, so there were no provisions on the recording of interrogations even though the international bodies made it very clear to Serbia that it should be included in the law.

“Another aspect of this right is impunity for officials, short statutes of limitation for acts of police torture, no mandatory suspension and dismissal for officials responsible for those acts.”

During the hearing, the presence of a trusted person is not foreseen, which is very important, among other things, for the protection of citizens from torture”, indicates Vladica Ilić.

Digital dictatorship

The intention of the state of Serbia to carry out mass surveillance of its citizens and thus directly affect their rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution caused a lot of public attention back in 2019. Eight thousand cameras were installed in Serbia, and the MUP justified the acquisition of special software for biometric data processing by the need to increase security, especially the fight against terrorism, kidnappers… The civil sector, legal and other experts, as well as the international public, pointed out that the use such software is illegal and that the government can misuse it to monitor the opposition and political opponents.

“The promise from the MUP that the system will not be used indiscriminately and for mass surveillance means either a misunderstanding of this technology, because you have to recognize all faces to get a match result, or it is simply a false narrative,” says Filip Milošević from the SHARE Foundation.

He adds that the MUP has not yet proven that this type of surveillance is necessary for their work and that it is proportionate to the level of crime on the streets.

“We feel quite safe, we don’t have many terrorist attacks, we are a homogenous society. Therefore, the police are doing their job quite well and we see no reason to buy and use this kind of technology because practically all citizens will lose their privacy for the sake of some efficiency,” Milošević assesses.

He recalls the numerous researches that proved that MUP officers accessed the system of mobile operators hundreds of thousands of times in order to see who was talking to whom, who was registered at certain base stations, where they were, who sent messages to whom. .. which is a huge violation of human rights.

“All of that required a court decision, but the police never asked for it, so we see no reason why it won’t happen in this case as well,” our interlocutor points out.

Even if this technology is not used in its full capacity, because it is heard that software has been purchased but is not being used, it has a great negative impact on civil and political rights, especially in the public space. There is an anxiety effect, it will prevent people from speaking their minds or protesting because they will feel that they are under some kind of surveillance.

“Such technologies pave the way for the so-called automated repression of citizens, it is called digital oppression or digital dictatorship in the world. With these trends of artificial intelligence and centralization of data (we have a project called “smart Serbia” and the state’s tendency to centralize all data on citizens) you can do different types of manipulations,” says Milošević.

He adds that with the help of cameras and the appropriate software for searching and recognizing faces, the police can recognize all the people at the protests (and not just determine their number, as President Aleksandar Vučić himself did by his own admission), cross it with the database of employees in the public management and then all those people can be invited for a talk tomorrow. Or that the data from the software is cross-referenced with the database of entrepreneurs and then tomorrow they are visited by various inspectors, Milošević warns.

It is justifiable to suspect that the MUP is already making extensive and illegal use of this system, and that this law was just an attempt to legalize it. The misdemeanor charges received by the participants of last year’s civil environmental protests, especially in Niš, who claim that no one has identified them, fueled these speculations.

MUP under party control

In the shadow of those provisions were the articles of the law which drastically increase the powers of the relevant minister, who usually does not come from the ranks of the police but from the ruling party. Thus, the minister can dismiss the police director with an explanation, but the possible reasons for the dismissal are not specified.

“If all the levers of management and staffing are given to the party representative, then it is quite clear what that police force could look like. And the few professionals who have not been dispersed so far will be brought under control”, says our anonymous source from the MUP.

Instrument of abuse

The opposition believes that one should be careful because, as the head of the SSP parliamentary group Marinika Tepić said, this is probably just a tactical move and a temporary withdrawal of the Draft Law on the Police, but that it also gives room for the opponents of the law to organize better.

The members of the opposition stated that the government will probably not abandon such an anti-constitutional and anti-European law because the equipment for its implementation has already been delivered and some people are already being trained to use it. Recording equipment was also acquired, and that data is controlled by the Chinese Huawei.

It shouls be noted that the previous draft of the law was withdrawn immediately before the elections, and now this second draft during the New Year’s season. This small victory is the result of the joint action of the media, the civil sector and the opposition.

Marinika Tepić stated before Brnabić’s decision that it is “a dangerous law for political opponents of the regime, for those who are inconvenient, but also for journalists in particular, it becomes a tool for all kinds of abuses, tracking and persecuting people”, and that with that law “not only does the regime enter the last stage of the destruction of the Serbian police” but also “covers up its deep criminalization”.

At a protest in Pionirski Park in Belgrade, lawyer Čedomir Stojković warned that, if that act is adopted, Serbia will become a “black hole” in Europe.

Biljana Stojković, co-president of the Zajedno party, estimated that the proposed draft law is the last nail in the coffin of human and civil rights and that, if it is allowed to be adopted, huge problems will arise for those who protest against the government and that arrests will follow.

“If this goes through, we are extinguished as a society, there is no more freedom, but fear and anxiety of what they will do to us.” If this goes unnoticed, we will wake up in a police state,” said Stojković.

MP and lawyer Aleksandar Olenik pointed out that the law is a copy of identical laws in Russia and Belarus. Whether the withdrawal of the controversial draft law is just a tactical move by the government to calm the people down, or whether the announced wider consultations will follow in order to improve the legal text, remains to be seen. Part of Brnabić’s explanation that this is in order to “clarify all doubts in the public and for everyone to understand the intention of the law, which is of particular importance for the safety of all citizens,” causes confusion.

Therefore, there is no question of improving the text, but of interpreting what the writer wanted to say. So what came out of the Government – a shock bomb and tear gas. Or, in chess terms, the move withdrawn may be Ana’s gambit.

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