A new report says the disabled are forced to spend years in institutions without proper care and in conditions amounting to torture.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade – 21/11/07
The Serbian government has reacted angrily to a new report that claims children and adults with special needs are being abused in Serbia's social care institutions, with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica describing the allegations as "malicious".
"Accusations that torture is used as treatment for children, and that these are camps for children and not social care institutions, are particularly malicious," the prime minister said. He added that a special commission would be formed to report on the real conditions in institutions tasked with caring for people with special needs.
Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI), a US-based NGO, unveiled its report on November 14th following a four-year investigation. The study describes -- and documents with images -- harsh conditions in six Serbian institutions.
Children are being restrained in their beds, denied adequate medical care, forced to use their beds as toilets and go without heat during winter, MDRI said.
"Filthy conditions, contagious diseases, lack of medical care and rehabilitation, and a failure to provide oversight renders placement in a Serbian institution life-threatening," the report said. "MDRI investigators found children and adults with disabilities tied to beds or never allowed to leave a crib -- some for years at a time."
While the government deserves credit for acknowledging the problem, lack of funding, poor community support and inadequate legislation have hampered efforts to reform the system, the report said.
"These are Serbia's most vulnerable citizens. Thousands confined to institutions are subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and abuse. Children and adults tied down and restrained over a lifetime is dangerous and painful treatment tantamount to torture -- clear violations of the European Convention on Human Rights," said attorney Eric Rosenthal, executive director of MDRI and an expert on human rights law, in a press release.
"We call on the government of Serbia to stop these abuses immediately and to respect the human rights of all people with disabilities," he said.
Kostunica, however, accused MDRI of engaging in a smear campaign timed to coincide with the status talks on Kosovo.
"The Serbian government will counter such dark propaganda by using all democratic and legal means available," he added.
Serbian Labour and Social Policy Minister Rasim Ljajic, meanwhile, said that while the report had a political undertone, it also included justified criticism. But he faulted MDRI for suggesting that improving conditions for the disabled should be a condition for future Serbian membership in the EU.
"It is unusual that this report was unveiled in the international media before being handed to us, and presented at a news conference before being presented to authorised state institutions," Ljajic said.
For Health Minister Tomica Milosavljevic, the report was simply "political abuse".
"If a person or organisation first goes public and says that they have been researching a problem in a country for four years, without having any contacts with that country's official institutions, then that does not seem compassionate, but more like political abuse," Milosavljevic said.
Nevertheless, government representatives have pledged to improve the situation in institutions for people with special needs. A national plan for a mental health care strategy has been adopted, and a bill on the protection of rights of people with mental disorders is now being prepared.
The government has also announced it has invested 12m euros in the renovation of psychiatric hospitals and plans to build new institutions.