Serbia should immediately end the isolation of those detained during the ongoing state of emergency, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch urged the Serbian government to immediately open the detention facilities to independent observers and to lift the ban on contact between detainees and their lawyers and families. Human Rights Watch said that the government should also abandon a new draft law that would introduce long-term incommunicado detention even in situations other than the state of emergency.

The Human Rights Watch call came on the heels of Serbia and Montenegro’s April 3 accession to the Council of Europe, the principal regional intergovernmental organization committed to upholding respect for human rights.

“The extended incommunicado detention of suspects violates Council of Europe norms,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Entry into the Council of Europe entails more than a ceremony in Strasbourg. It must include concrete steps to abide by Council standards.”

Serbia introduced the state of emergency on March 12, following the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. 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. More than 2000 individuals are currently detained under the March 12 order.

In a letter to the new Prime Minister, Zoran Zivkovic, on March 25, Human Rights Watch urged the government to modify the regime of complete and protracted isolation of detainees, including by allowing independent outside monitors. As of the beginning of April, Human Rights Watch was unaware of any independent organization allowed access to the detainees. On Friday, April 4, a senior Serbian police official stated that “observers from Europe” had visited Belgrade Central Prison, where the majority of those detained under the state of emergency are being held. Officials in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice contacted by Human Rights Watch could not confirm that any such visits had occurred.

Under international law, any measure derogating from human rights must be limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. International jurists share the view that even in times of emergency no person should be held in isolation without communication with family or a lawyer for longer than a few days.

The authorities in Serbia appear to be firmly in control of the security situation and have reportedly detained all but a handful of those suspected of involvement in the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. Under such circumstances, the absolute and continued isolation of the detainees is disproportionate to any possible threat to Serbia’s stability, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch reiterated that outside monitoring of the status of the detainees would be an important check against possible torture or ill-treatment. Detainees who confess to a crime under threat of torture or ill-treatment can subsequently argue at trial that a confession extracted under such circumstances should not be considered by the court.

Trials of those currently in detention should be open to the public, except when pressing reasons of public order or of the protection of witnesses require otherwise, Human Rights Watch said. Qualified observers should also be able to attend closed sessions, in line with the recent practice in domestic war crimes trials in the former Yugoslavia.

Serbian officials have argued that the state of emergency does not infringe human rights, as it is directed only against the “criminals.”

“Even under a state of emergency, all people enjoy certain fundamental rights protections, such as the prohibition against torture, and these must be respected,” Andersen said.

Human Rights Watch is concerned by the Serbian government’s adoption on April 3 of a draft law authorizing the police to detain anyone suspected of involvement in organized crime for up to sixty days. This law would also apply in situations other than the state of emergency. Under the draft law, a suspect could be deprived of any contact with lawyers or other persons throughout the entire sixty-day period. The Serbian parliament is expected to act on the draft law this week.