Natasha Boshkova graduated law in 2003 at the St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. In 2008, she received her MA in Gender Studies from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies at the University in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Currently she is working as a lawyer and legal adviser at the Coalition for Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities MARGINS, strategically representing cases of human rights violations of people who use drugs, sex workers, LGBT people, people living with HIV and marginalized women.
By Eleonora Stojanovic
How frequently do our police treat drug users unlawfully nowadays, in the 21 st century, and in what way?
The simplest answer would be yes, the police often treat unlawfully people who use drugs. However, the problem is multi-layered, the shapes and manner in the police’s actions changing with the different time-frames. I would like to go further into details on this issue. Since its independence, the legal framework in the country regulating drug possession and use by physical entities has remained almost exactly the same. Individual drug use is punished only when occurring in a public space, by issuing a fine to the perpetrator, while possession for personal use is not punishable according to the Law’s provisions. The problem we keep addressing is the poor police practice, which is then supported by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, with the court actually being the main culprit in the problem. In fact, the foundations for this poor practice were based on the personal opinion of professionals who disapprove drug-related behaviors. Research on the inclusiveness of Macedonian society was conducted in 2008 with questions on people’s attitude towards drug users and their perception on drug use regulation. A large percentage of the respondents demonstrated refusal to accept people who use drugs, claiming such behaviors should be punished. Police treatment, as well as treatment of other institutions from the criminal legal system, revealed the same opinion as the majority of citizens, although the law prescribes quite a different treatment.
Personal opinion and prejudices against drug use is the main instigator for the police’s unlawful treatment. In the past, police actions were mainly demonstrated with the use of force and violence, defined as torture according to human rights standards, which in itself is a serious rights violation, a right that mustn’t be suppressed even in extraordinary situations, such as military or a state of emergency. In other words, torture can never be justified, under any circumstances. In the past ten years, although not eradicated yet, this type of treatment has decreased, with physical violence, however, being still present, and psychological violence and harassment reaming to be a consistent element of police treatment, regardless whether the victim is a victim or the perpetrator of a criminal offense, or simply a participant in traffic. Violation of the right to privacy is also a common right violation of people who use drugs.
Unfortunately, cases of legal police treatment with respect of dignity are quite rare. Police officers tend to forget that legal treatment implies respect of a person’s dignity regardless of their health condition or other personal characteristics. The police, as the majority of the society in fact, treat these people as less worthy and with less rights than others.
Macedonian police was found guilty for unlawful actions against their citizens, specifically against drug users by the Strasbourg Court. Can you tell us more about this?
In fact, the state was found responsible due to the lack of clear legal framework on how, and in which cases, a DNA sample can be taken from a citizen, as a result of which the police violated the rights of several individuals with their arbitrary behaviour, while the institutions and courts failed to provide efficient protection against the police’s conduct. Namely, the right to privacy was violated by the police when on several occasions police officers took DNA samples from suspects of criminal offences without offering an explanation on what the sample was going to be used for, how long it was going to be kept, etc. It should be noted that all the cases we contacted, of people whose DNA sample was taken from, were people who use drugs. It is yet another example confirming the previous statement that nobody answers when a police officer takes a DNA sample from a drug user since they must be criminals who must have committed an offence.
How did the case reach the Strasbourg Court? Where does the problem lie in our domestic judiciary system?
The verdict was the result of years-long battle before domestic institutions and courts initiated in 2010, in order to prove that the police cannot do as they please with people’s genetic material, but also to convince courts that drug users also have the right to a private life, a right courts are obligated to protect. Some of the people whose rights were violated in that period are no longer with us. More precisely, around 2009/2010, several clients from HOPS reported an uncommon police practice, i.e. after detention at a police station and interrogation, police officers would take their photo and prints and do a mouth swab. At the time clients explained how the police officers boasted with the new equipment for genetic testing procured from the Ministry of Interior and how they would take the opportunity to test it. Ten years later, these allegations proved to be true. Particularly since part of the people whose DNA sample was taken from were accused for the criminal offence they had been initially detained for, however the DNA sample was never used as evidence during the proceedings. In addition, during the proceedings, MOI claimed how DNA samples were taken only in cases of more severe offences, not in thefts, which however was false. We managed to prove before the Strasbourg Court that this claim was not clearly regulated by law, and that MOI abused the legal gap with their arbitrary behaviour, which apparently was practiced with no difficulties on vulnerable categories already labelled as criminals.
As a result, the Directorate for Personal Data Protection failed to determine a right violation in the four cases instigated, and later the Administrative Court and the Higher Administrative Court also did not determine a violation.
How many people from the civil society participated in this action and how long was the case, from the moment you initiated the procedure until verdict was reached?
The success of the procedure instigated before the European Court of Human Rights is the result of the continuous support offered by organizations working on human rights of people who use drugs. The victims were HOPS’ previous clients, which is how we found out about this practice conducted by the police, and with the support of the Coalition Margins we constructed the cases on a domestic level. The procedure for proving injustice is long and oftentimes people, pressed by their daily problems and chores, lose interest, hope and motivation to remain active in all the phases of the proceedings, a requirement for seeking justice before the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, I would like to thank all my colleagues from HOPS and Margins who selflessly supported the victims to persevere until the end, without whom today’s success would never have been possible. During the procedure before the Strasbourg Court, one of the applicants was dealing with stress from another court proceeding due to the lawsuit filed before the Strasbourg Court, however the applicant never wavered and continued to prove the injustice suffered.
Do you think, after the verdict from Strasbourg, that better times are coming with regards to respect for the human rights of marginalized communities by the police?
Certainly, I consider the verdict reached by the European Court as an important step in the series of activities towards improving police treatment of marginalized communities. However, the verdict itself cannot lead to the substantial changes we require unless we demand its enforcement and closely monitor other cases of arbitrary police actions or overstepping of authorities. The Court indicated to the problem of lacking clear legislative framework, and this could lead to further violations but also supports the fact that the police’s arbitrary behaviour led to the violation in question. Consequently, the provisions from the Law on Police and the subsequent by-laws regulating this issue have to be clarified, specifically in the part of collecting, processing and storing DNA samples, so that in future both police officers and citizens know what is legal and where police authorizations end. Civil society organizations and the community itself should press for these amendments and afterwards monitor the implementation of the consequent provisions but also the swiftness and quality with which the verdict is enforced.
What can we do to change police treatment towards people who use drugs?
A lot of effort has been invested by the civil society in working with the police through various training, legal procedures instigated before the competent institutions and the application of advocating strategies with decision makers in regards to improving the legislation and institutions’ treatment of people who use drugs. By advocating with the police, public prosecutor’s office and courts, not only did we manage to secure protection, but we also educated professionals in these institutions on the legal, economic, social and health aspects related to drug use, something quite different from the criminal offences described in the law.
In 2018, the Coalition Margins signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Ministry of Interior on the grounds of which, together with MOI’s Training Centre, a module was developed for ethical police treatment of marginalized communities including sex workers, people who use drugs and LGBTI people. So far, eighty police officers have been trained, with more training following in future. The module is part of the regular curriculum at the Training Centre, where the trainees are and will be future professional police officers who have the obligation to regularly receive training and develop their skills in different fields. The trainings held so far confirm what I said at the beginning of the interview, which is that there is still huge police resistance against people who use drugs. There is lack of trust, prejudices regarding the moral quality of these people, danger for the environment, etc. The module contains research from our country and abroad on how unsuccessful really was the so-called “war on drugs”, led at the expense of the most vulnerable categories. Personally, I feel hopeful that after each training is over, the discussion ends with the conclusion that the police, civil society organizations and marginalized communities should be partners in improving safety in the environment, promoting public health and protecting citizens’ rights.