Alleged police brutality in Bosnia and Herzegovina could be torture, says Council of Europe

The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee has published a damning report on alleged police brutality in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The committee said it unearthed serious allegations of physical and psychological ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.

In a final report published on Tuesday, it said the claims were so serious they could amount to torture.

They included kicks, punches, slaps and beatings with batons, baseball bats, wooden tablets and electric cables in custody, but also rape with a baton and mock execution with a firearm.

The report by the council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) was based on a visit in June 2019.

Euronews contacted authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the allegations but they had not responded by the time of publication.

In its opening remarks, the 82-page report states: “The high number of credible allegations of police ill-treatment received by the CPT’s delegation, in particular in relation to members of the Sarajevo Cantonal Police, is a source of deep concern.

“The seriousness of the findings of the 2019 visit require… vigorous action to promote a radical change of culture within the police; physical ill-treatment of detainees must be rejected as unprofessional and unacceptable by the police themselves.”

Shocking testimonies from ex-detainees

Inspectors took in evidence from people remanded and sentenced at Sarajevo, Mostar and Banja Luka prisons and patients at two psychiatric units in Sokolac and the Stolac Social Care Home.

The most serious attacks were allegedly inflicted by inspectors of the judicial police, with the aim of forcing suspects to confess to a crime, as well as by members of special intervention units at the time of arrest.

One person arrested on October 26, 2018, in Pale municipality described being beaten with a baseball bat and a gun barrel by Sarajevo police wearing masks during his interrogation.

He also alleged that he had been stripped naked, tortured with metal pliers and the point of an umbrella, as well as a baton, had been inserted into his anus. He was released the next day and East Sarajevo Hospital confirmed he had suffered serious injuries in a medical report.

Another detainee, held in a different office on the same day, reported the same treatment and also having pepper spray sprayed into his face.

Another apprehended on May 29, 2019, said he was whipped with a cable on his back and legs in a bid to make him confess to a string of robberies.

Others who spoke to the CPT said they had been subjected to psychological abuse. A woman held at Banja Luka Prison on February 19, 2019, said she was falsely told that “her husband, her co-accused, would be executed… subsequently, when she did not furnish the information the inspectors wanted, she was informed that her husband had been killed”.

Two people accused of drug trafficking, six months apart, said officers at the Dom Policije police station had placed the barrel of a gun into their mouths.

The CPT said of a man arrested in Gacko on January 18, 2019: “While lying prone on the snowy ground with his hands cuffed behind his back, officers had fired bullets either side of his head to get him to reveal information on the location of certain smuggled merchandise.”

Several people met by the CPT’s delegation reported being handcuffed to a piece of furniture for hours on end without food, water or access to a toilet. By law in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an arrested person can be held in custody for 24 hours.

The seriousness of these allegations, the CPT wrote, “requires immediate and determined action by the authorities”.

Complaints investigations ‘not independent’

Although the conditions in prison had improved since 2015, the CPT also found prisoners in Sarajevo and Mostar were still being subjected to excessive restrictions, sometimes being held in their cells for 23 hours a day.

The CPT also observed: “Health-care staff [in prisons] still displayed a disregard for important principles of medical ethics, such as confidentiality of medical examinations.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2008 but has yet to set up a national preventative mechanism.

Within its findings, the CPT noted that some prisoners’ reports of ill-treatment by Sarajevo Cantonal Police had been investigated by members of the same force, who did not take into account the medical reports or other potential witnesses.

Elsewhere, the CPT found, the Sarajevo police’s Internal Control Unit had failed to reply to repeated requests from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Human Rights Ombudsman.

Inspectors wrote: “The CPT calls upon the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to establish fully independent police complaints bodies which are adequately resourced, and will ensure that allegations of police ill-treatment are investigated effectively.”

The report also called for modern methods of forensic investigation, an audio and video recording of police interrogations, and sweeping culture change across the country’s police forces.

Government begins reforms but insists no human rights abuses reported

In March 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees held a meeting with representatives from the police, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior to address the litany of violations highlighted by the CPT in 2019.

In its formal response to the investigation, the Police Administration said it had begun to establish interview rooms with audio and video equipment.

It also launched specialist training for certain arms of the Sarajevo police on the topics of “prevention of torture” and “professional interrogation techniques”. It noted some of the training has since been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in its plan of action submitted to the CPT, the Ministry of Interior also said: “The Professional Standards Unit of the Federal Police Administration has not received a single complaint, nor does it have any information, that human rights of persons deprived of their liberty have been violated in any way in detention facilities, especially with regard to torture and other types of abuse.”

The Ministry of Interior and the Police Administration added they had agreed to a “zero tolerance” policy for the abuse of persons deprived of their liberty “and this message was disseminated to all police officers”.

It continued: “Police officers who do not share this stance will be prosecuted, both in a disciplinary and criminal manner.”

There have been three such prosecutions of police officers in the country in the past two to three years.

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