A prominent Serbian NGO claims that the integrity of the country’s police has been weakened by politicisation and weak anti-corruption efforts. Interior ministry officials disagree and have highlighted upcoming regulatory improvements. EURACTIV Serbia reports.
Strengthening the integrity of its police force is one of the challenges Serbia faces on its path toward possible EU membership. Police reform, according to experts, is the key to the country’s plan to harmonise with EU regulations and standards in Chapter 24 of the accession process, which was opened in July.
The European Commission’s annual report on Serbia’s progress in European integration, unveiled on 9 November, said that Serbia had made some progress in police reform.
Serbia, which is largely reprimanded for poor human resource management, as well as lax control and oversight in police work and politicisation of the service, implemented a new police law in January.
The law sets out a reorganisation of the interior ministry, career advancement in the sector and strengthening of internal affairs.
The legislation also gives the Sector of Internal Control much greater authority, and also allows “integrity tests” to be carried out, as well as the storing of heads of ministries’ property lists, with the option of checking other employees too.
It should considerably increase the level of control and access to data on an employee’s property for the sake of combating corruption.
The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, which is monitoring Serbia’s activities in the talks on Chapter 24, in mid-December said that the Sector of Internal Control annually pressed, on average, only 130 criminal charges against police officers for corruption.
“The number of charges is small and does not fit the high perception of corruption within the police, because only 3% of the population believes there are no corrupt police officers. Another problem is the fact that the court epilogue of the charges pressed against police officers is unknown,” said centre researcher Saša Djordjević.
On 13 December, the centre presented research showing that these factors, as well as politicisation of the police force, resulted in weakened police integrity in Serbia.
The interior ministry retorted that the centre had only used data relating to charges pressed by the Sector of Internal Control, rather than those pressed by other ministry services.
According to interior ministry data, the Sector of Internal Control between January and October of this year pressed 147 criminal charges, compared with 168 last year, against police members, whereas other organisational units of the ministry in 2015 pressed 587 charges against police officers for various criminal offences.
The ministry failed to specify what criminal offences the charges related to but stressed that it was taking the fight against corruption seriously.
“We have seriously approached the fight against corruption and are one of the rare countries in which 20 or 30 members of the police are arrested in a single day for corruption offences,” explained the ministry.
Its statement also said that of the ten countries in the region, only the Anti-Corruption General Directorate of the Romanian Ministry of Interior and its own Sector of Internal Control press criminal charges for illegal activities by police officers.
The ministry said that by connecting the perception of corruption to the number of criminal charges pressed, the Belgrade Centre demonstrated “a highly unprofessional approach to this research” and presented unsubstantiated claims of police politicisation.
“The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy continues to present unsubstantiated claims of police politicisation, deliberately forgetting that the new Law on Police, passed early this year, reduced the minister’s authority relative to a past period. They probably believe that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth,” the statement also claimed.
The centre’s Integrity Testing in Serbian Police report insisted that 75% of the population believed politics greatly influenced the work of the police.
Djordjević said that politicians “present information on ongoing investigations in a media-attractive way,” and that the practice had been implemented since the 2000 elections, which marked the end of the Milošević regime.
“Citizens and NGOs, as well as the EU institutions see that, hence the European Commission in its latest report called on the Serbian government and interior ministry to carry out measures ensuring operative independence of the police,” said Djordjević.
He added that the case of the nighttime demolition of structures in Belgrade’s Savamala neighbourhood “revealed systemic problems in the police, as well as that some police officers are not immune to crime and politics”.
Masked individuals during the election night between 24 and 25 April demolished several structures in the quarter, near the construction site of the Belgrade Waterfront apartment and office complex.
In the process, the individuals also tied up and took phones away from citizens who had been at the site of the demolition, while police failed to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner.
Responding to the ministry’s retort, the centre urged the ministry to continue its dialogue with civic associations on systemic responses to corruption risks within the police but added that it did not befit the institution, that should work in the interests of citizens, to release statements resembling those made by political parties.
The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy voiced regret that the ministry had not answered the organisation’s invitations to discuss its research, as well as other problems in the police force.
The NGO welcomed the data provided by the ministry now and called on it to publicise other information for the period dating back to 2005, including what criminal charges had been pressed against members of the police.