Serbia angered by abuse allegations

;KULINA, Serbia (AP) – Serbia’s prime minister on Thursday angrily rejected allegations by a U.S. human rights group that disabled people have been systematically abused in the Balkan country, calling the report “dark propaganda.”

Staff members at one of the institutions in question also denied allegations that they had tortured mentally retarded children.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in a statement that a report 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.

The report alleged Serbia neglects and mistreats its mentally disabled. It said the most extreme human rights violations in Serbian mental institutions “are tantamount to torture.”

Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Mental Disability Rights International, said he was surprised and disappointed by Kostunica’s strong reaction.

Rosenthal, who was in Belgrade on Thursday for the release of the report, said the government had in the past openly admitted the poor treatment of patients in their institutions and recognized the need to improve the system.

“The report actually compliments the government’s candor,” Rosenthal told The Associated Press by telephone. “So when we release a report of this kind and the prime minister turns around and criticizes it, it’s really a setback. It’s a surprise and a setback.”

MDRI’s report said that 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 photos and a graphic video of patients and poor conditions at facilities in Serbia.

“Those allegations are monstrous and totally false,” said Dragoljub Markovic, the director of the Kulina Institutions for Children and Youth, which houses more than 500 severely retarded people, half of them children. “We may be suffering staffing and financial problems, but for anyone to say that we are tormenting our patients is a total lie.”

On Thursday, toddlers in the Kulina institution, criticized in the rights group’s report, rested in white metal cribs on clean sheets wearing neat pajamas. Most have bent extremities and disfigured faces, and suffer various diseases and conditions, such as Down syndrome.

One child with a pale face and purple cheeks, looking no more than 4, lay on her back, waving her arms in repeated motions. Nurses said she was actually 11, and that she is rarely taken out

of her bed.

“It’s simply because she cannot sit or stand,” said Vojislav Cvetkovic, a doctor. “And we don’t have enough staff to cover all the needs.”

A teenage boy crumpled in his bed had deep wounds and scars on his face, apparently from self-inflicted injuries.

“We sometimes have to tie him down for no more than 30 minutes before tranquilizers take effect, or he would inflict serious injuries to himself,” said pediatrician Svetlana Stefanovic. “But to say that we are tying them down for a lifetime is disgraceful.”

The group’s report said that many of the children try incessantly to hurt themselves and that the commonly accepted “treatment” for self-abuse in the institutions is the use of physical restraints.

“The practice actually exacerbates the underlying psychological damage to the person, resulting in continued self-abuse and even more physical restraint,” the report said, adding that the group’s investigators saw many children at the institutions biting and chewing their own fingers. Some even tried to rip off their ears or gouge out their eyes, it said.

In Serbia’s initial reaction on Wednesday, Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic had acknowledged that psychiatric facilities faced serious problems, but he called the report “malicious” because it didn’t “lead to the solution of the problem.”