Serbia Says Allegations of Child Abuse at Mental Institutions Part of 'Dark Propaganda'

The Serbian government on Thursday angrily rejected allegations that disabled people in the country have been systematically abused, calling the charge "dark propaganda."

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in a statement that a report released Wednesday by the U.S.-based human rights group Mental Disability Rights International was "fabricated" and "malicious."

"The Serbian government will use all democratic and legal means to counter such dark propaganda," Kostunica said.

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His reaction differed sharply from that of the justice minister earlier in the day. The minister, Dusan Petrovic, had promised that the government look into the allegations and punish those responsible for any abuse.

"This issue must be resolved," Petrovic said. "The government will deal with it as soon as possible."

Later Thursday, Social Affairs minister Rasim Ljajic invited foreign representatives in Belgrade, as well as international and local human rights groups, to visit the institutions in question. Ljajic told reporters that "we should see for ourselves together, and let me assure you that we will not try to make things looks any nicer than they really are."

The report charged that Serbia has systematically neglected and mistreated its mentally disabled, keeping some of them tied to beds for years without proper care.

Kostunica said in his statement that the government would form a commission on the topic. But he said the commission would report on the "real" state of the psychiatric hospitals and care institutions listed in the report.

Kostunica said the government would insist on "clarifying all facts about the actual conditions" and suggested it would take legal action against the human rights group.

"Especially biased and malicious were allegations that the children were tortured rather than treated, and that those were children's camps not social institutions," the prime minister said.

The title of the rights group's report was "Torment Not Treatment."

Kostunica's angry statement followed that of the Health Minister, who suggested Thursday there was an intention to "politically misuse" the report. Tomica Milosavljevic said the group had made no contact with the Serbian government and had released its report first to the media.

Milosavljevic had acknowledged earlier that psychiatric facilities had suffered as the nation struggled to recover from the wars of the 1990s. But he said he did not think the report accurately described the situation.

The rights group acknowledged that some improvements have been made with help from foreign donors, but said more needed to be done.

The group said some children and adults with disabilities never leave their beds or cribs and some are tied down for "a lifetime" to keep them from harming themselves. The group showed reporters a graphic video of patients and poor conditions at facilities in Serbia.

Social Affairs Minister, Ljajic on Wednesday ordered one of the institutions cited in the report to stop admitting children.

Independent B92 radio on Thursday quoted a pediatrician at the Kulina center for the disabled as admitting they do restrain children occasionally for 15-20 minute periods and when they are in a position to hurt themselves.