By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Macedonia’s secret police, UBK, will no longer have unchecked powers to place people under surveillance, under a set of bills that form part of EU-recommended reforms of the security sector.
A set of government proposed bills in Macedonia, aimed at improving civilian control over the security services, which Brussels has noted in the past as a serious issue, will enter parliamentary procedure this week.
One of the main novelties contained in the bill on communications surveillance, prepared by the Interior Ministry, is that the secret police will no longer be in charge of the technical process of surveillance.
Instead, the country will form a new Operational Technical Agency, OTA, which will be independent from the secret police and under much firmer civil control.
Its work will be monitored closely by the Prosecutor’s Office, the bills envisage.
Additionally, five institutions will monitor surveillance activities to prevent any repeat of past abuses and breaches of people’s privacy and other human rights, the government has proposed.
Parliament, the directorate for classified information, the personal data protection agency, the Ombudsman’s Office and a newly formed civic council will all be engaged in the OTA’s monitoring work.
As part of the system of checks and balances, OTA will only be in charge of collecting surveillance data, and will not be able to listen to and analyze them. Its chief will be appointed by parliament and will have to possess at least ten year’s work experience in the police.
The UBK will only be able to analyze the collected data but will no longer have the ability to eavesdrop itself.
The current law allows the UBK to eavesdrop without seeking a court’s permission and without notifying the telecom operators.
As part of the reforms, mobile operators will no longer be obliged to provide technical equipment to the UBK, with which it could easily penetrate their systems for surveillance purposes.
The reforms in the security sector come as part of the new government’s drive to curb misuses of surveillance, after a mass illegal surveillance scandal rocked Macedonia in 2015, causing a long political crisis.
Former Prime Minister and VMRO DPMNE chief Nikola Gruevski and his cousin, former secret police chief Saso Mijalkov, were accused of masterminding the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people, including government ministers.
They denied the charges. The crisis only ended this May with the election of a new Social Democrat-led government.
In November 2016, the Special Prosecution, SJO, which was formed as part of an EU mediated agreement between Macedonia’s parties and tasked with investigating allegations of high-level corruption, confirmed that the secret police ran the illegal wiretapping operation.
As a result, Mijalkov and other former senior police officials are currently on trial for the illegal surveillance operation and for trying to destroy evidence of it.
In October, Greek police arrested two runaway former Macedonian secret police employees whose testimonies in court, after their extradition to Macedonia, may shed additional light on the mass illegal wiretapping.
If it carries out all the most urgent reforms, Macedonia’s new government hopes to open acession talks with the EU next year.