Serbia starts debates aiming to demilitarize police

Serbian lawmakers began debating Monday a government-proposed bill to reform the Balkan republic's police force, long criticized for being a pillar of support for ex-president Slobodan Milosevic. Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said the new legislation would "satisfy international standards" but also take into account "Serbia's specific circumstances."

Jocic said the draft bill was in line with recommendations by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Stability and Cooperation in Europe. Its aim was to "depoliticize, decentralize, professionalize and demilitarize the police."

Reforms include Serbian police henceforth guaranteeing to protect foreigners in addition to Serbian nationals, eliminating ranks and recruiting reservists on a voluntary basis.

The police would be commanded by a director appointed to a 5-year term instead of the interior minister. The new bill also calls for special funding for battling organized crime. Milosevic's Socialist Party said it help the minority government pass the bill, but the opposition Civic Alliance party said the bill did not protect human rights and represented a "continuation of Milosevic's policies."

Independent watchdog Humanitarian Law Fund also criticized the bill, saying it envisaged a police force lacking transparency and devoid of any public control.

The pro-Western Democrats who boycotted the assembly session, said they would announce their stand on the bill later Monday. A.M.