Certain restrictions on rights imposed by the Serbian government in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic may not be justified under international law, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic today

The Serbian government should be able to provide careful justification for every measure taken under the recently proclaimed state of emergency, the letter said. Under international law, any measure derogating from human rights must be limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.
Serbia introduced the state of emergency on March 12, following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic the same day. The authorities have still not captured the perpetrators, but have detained more than 1000 people pursuant to their state of emergency powers.

“The Serbian government claims, and indeed appears, to be in control of the security situation. Under these circumstances, the government should consider amending or halting certain measures that restrict basic rights,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.

Under the state of emergency order, the police can detain anyone who “endangers security of other citizens of the Republic” for up to thirty days, without access to a lawyer, family members, or judicial review of the detention order. Human Rights Watch said the incommunicado detention without judicial review is a reason for concern, particularly in light of the repeated cases of reported ill-treatment in police detention during the past two years.

Human Rights Watch urged the Serbian government to consider lifting the ban on contact between detainees and their lawyers and families. The group also suggested that the Serbian government open its detention facilities to independent monitors. Human Rights Watch said that such monitoring would demonstrate Serbia’s commitment to human rights. Human Rights Watch also argued that such monitoring could facilitate effective prosecutions, since detainees might otherwise allege at trial that any confession before the investigating judge was extracted under threat of torture or ill-treatment by police during their incommunicado detention.

Human Rights Watch also called on the authorities to provide for judicial review of detention shortly after the deprivation of liberty. The Human Rights Watch letter to Prime Minister Zivkovic invokes authoritative sources of international law limiting the extent to which a state can depart from the requirement of periodic and effective judicial review of detention.

Human Rights Watch also reminded the Serbian government that the state obligation to respect the right to life applies fully, even under the state of emergency. The Serbian minister of interior recently announced that the police would “liquidate everybody who resists the police” in its attempt to solve the Djindjic assassination. If implemented, this approach would go beyond the strict limitations on the lethal use of firearms by law enforcement officials under international law.

Human Rights Watch also called on the government to rescind the ban on media reporting of the reasons for introduction of the state of emergency.

“It is difficult to see how coverage of the social and political circumstances leading to the March 12 assassination and the state of emergency could hinder the investigation,” Andersen said. “Even in these difficult times—maybe even especially now—the authorities must uphold human rights and the rule of law.”