Note from LeftEast editors. We repost Iskra Krstić’s important article which was originally published in Serbian at Mašina, and also translated to English by Ivan Kovanović and published on December 19 2022 at the same portal. The article also appears as a fruit of the cooperation between the members of the Eastern European Left Media Outlet – ELMO. Since the publication of the article, the government decided to temporarily withdraw the draft bill in order to allow a wider public discussion. Despite this piece of good news, it is a quite likely scenario that the government will wait for the right moment for launching the procedure for legislative change.
A new draft bill on internal affairs is due to be presented to the Serbian public by the end of the year. Members of the opposition and representatives of civil society have warned that it is even more alarming than legislation proposed in September 2021, which was withdrawn following an intervention by the Serbian head of state.
This is due to be one of the most authoritarian measures that the Vučić regime has implemented in its ten-year rule, threatening to lead Serbian society towards dictatorship and turn the country into a police state,” declared political scientist, Dr Radivoje Jovović.
Jovović, who also presides over the Novi Sad committee of the Zajedno party, claims that, should the draft bill be adopted, police officers will have the power to search people’s homes without a warrant, citing this as a threat to all Serbian citizens. Jovović additionally stresses that police officers will be empowered to rely on their “discretionary assessment” of whether peaceful protestors represent a “threat to general security” and, on this basis, will be permitted not only to detain them but also to use physical force against them.
Danijela Nestorović, a lawyer and National Assembly deputy for the Zajedno party, explains that “according to this draft, the use of force will be permitted against people who are sitting, kneeling, lying down or holding onto something. Imagine you are, for example, holding on to a lamppost, and a police officer has the right to use powers that are very broadly defined in this draft bill.”
In early December, the Committee on the Legal System and Government Bodies announced that two pieces of proposed legislation, a draft Internal Affairs Bill and a draft Bill on Data Processing and Record-Keeping in the Field of Internal Affairs, would be presented for public consultation. Thereupon, three public hearings are due to be held in quick succession – on 21 December in Novi Sad, on 23 December in Niš, and on 27 December in Belgrade.
Showdown with activists?
Belgrade lawyer, Nikola Barović, believes that the proposal of this legislation, which grants police sweeping powers, is motivated by the government’s desire to snuff out increasingly strong movements mobilised around environmental issues. As he claims, the government “saw that Sturmabteilung units, like the thugs with the bulldozer in Šabac, aren’t effective enough.” This is why he sees the proposed bill as representing a major narrowing of freedoms and defines it as a “confrontation with activists and free-thinking citizens”. Instead of being able to have faith in law enforcement, ordinary people who find themselves in such circumstances will be able only to recoil in fear, which is – as the experts we talked to point out – precisely the effect the government wants.
The proposed bill will, if adopted, also legalise biometric surveillance. We remind readers that previously proposed policing legislation, which was withdrawn in September of last year, would also have permitted police use of facial detection and recognition software. That clause in an otherwise highly exhaustive draft bill was the greatest point of contention for the general public, professional associations, and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance. As it was pointed out at the time, the deployment of biometric surveillance would be both unlawful and unconstitutional. Equipment enabling this kind of surveillance had already been purchased from and installed by Chinese company, Huawei, for an undisclosed sum.
Despite opposition from civil society and just days after the United Nations called for an international moratorium on the sale and use of similar surveillance systems until adequate legal restrictions are in place, the previous draft bill passed public consultations in September 2021. A few days after the public hearing, the then police minister, Aleksandar Vulin, issued a statement revealing that he requested that the draft be withdrawn so that it would not incite, “violent protests that aim to destabilise Serbia,” which were allegedly being prepared by “several foreign, Western intelligence services through their networks of agents in the media, non-governmental organisations and political parties.”
“President Vučić asked me to withdraw the draft internal affairs bill. The president doesn’t deny this and I will do it”, the minister’s statement read. Meanwhile, the Danas daily quoted the president as saying, “the reason for this is that there are six months to go until the elections and I don’t want us passing such important laws.”
Speaking to Mašina, Nestorović explained that even though the previous bill was withdrawn and biometric surveillance remains unlawful, it was, “evidently used during the environmental protests, without any legal basis.”
The Share Foundation, which has worked extensively on the use of automatic face detection and recognition software based on biometric data, has recently reacted by issuing a statement asserting that, from September 2021 to November 2022, seven consultations were organised between legislators and representatives of civil society but they all failed to produce an adequate legal framework. Moreover, according to Danas, the Share Foundation stresses that in May and September of this year, Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs prepared a draft assessment on the impact of biometric data processing that, “failed to address substantive issues.”
The proposed bill carries with it a slew of other problems, Jovović told Mašina. One of these being the status of those who cooperate with the police. He comments that “the fact that it will be permitted to track, to monitor with the help of a certain kind of informer – i.e. people who cooperate with the police who will be given the status of police officials and all the powers that go along with that – takes us back to the dark age of twentieth-century dictatorships.”
Nestorović adds that the bill is imprecise, leaving it open to misuse. The national assembly deputy believes that several sections of it, which are due to be “more precisely determined” at a later stage, remain ill-defined. For example, the basis on which the police will have the right to enter private property without a warrant has not been specified. It remains unclear whether police officers will be required to display their badge number or name on their uniforms or in which situations police officers will or will not be compelled to identify themselves.
In Barović’s view, the internal affairs bill ought to determine the organisational structure of the police rather than their powers, and the criminal procedure code should be the primary legislation defining police powers. Introducing provisions from the latter into the former leads to constraints on citizens’ rights – i.e. the introduction of a police state:
“Even if you are at home, peacefully, someone can come into your home and tell you that they are there lawfully. While you’re sitting there, watching the news about how the law was adopted, they can come in and tell you that you’re not allowed to do that.”
In Jovović’s assessment, “all of this is part of our society becoming more fascist and is a prelude to something that threatens us all.”
All power to the minister
Nestorović points out that this bill will not be good for the police either, since so much power is stripped from the National Assembly and internal police bodies and is instead concentrated in the hands of the minister. In her view, current legislation sees the police submitting regular reports to the National Assembly, while the draft bill stipulates that the minister will decide when reports are to be compiled. Moreover, they will be submitted first to the minister, who then passes them on to the government or the National Assembly.
“The internal control sector of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was completely independent. This new law will oblige it to report to the police minister. In practical terms, the government – i.e. the police minister – will exercise control,” Nestorović explains, confirming that in her assessment the police will become completely politicised.
The proposed bill will also empower the minister to personally initiate disciplinary proceedings that result in the early retirement of police officials who commit, “serious disciplinary violations”. Representatives of civil society see this as the power to sideline those deemed to be unsuitable. Jovović stresses that the Ministry of Internal Affairs will also have access to all data gathered in the field using the aforementioned means of surveillance.
“It is highly symptomatic that legislation such as this is being proposed at the very moment Vulin, Vučić’s general dogsbody, has been appointed as the head of the Security Information Agency,” Jovović told our reporters. The general view of opposition and civil society representatives we talked to is that the government is trying to push through legislation through the back door during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
“We will do everything in our power to raise objections and public awareness of the threat this bill poses, but we will also call on civil society organisations, judges, lawyers and legal experts to explain to people what constitutional rights are being breached and how authoritarian this law is. That’s what we can do. Since from the moment it goes to the national assembly, this law will pass. They have the majority,” Nestorović asserts.
Jovović warns that “if we don’t all oppose this – not only through the institutions but in the media and on the streets – I fear that this society will suffer greatly.”
He concludes by saying, “we all must realise that this is one of the most important issues of the past ten years and that now is the time when it is decided whether we will manage to maintain some hallmarks of a free society or whether we will descend into a dark and authoritarian era.”
Iskra Krstić is an independent researcher from Belgrade, with a focus on critical urban studies. She is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. She graduated from Faculty of Architecture and the Faculty of Political sciences, UB. Krstić is an author at masina.rs