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Improving safety and modernizing the Forensic Center in Montenegro

The Forensic Center of Montenegro, a pivotal institution responsible for providing evidence in criminal proceedings, has faced challenges over recent years related to the examination of explosive materials. To address these challenges, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Montenegro has been working with the Forensic Center over the past two years to contribute to the Center’s capacity building and adherence to international standards. 

In response to an assessment by the Bureau for the Operational Coordination of Security and Intelligence Services of the Government of Montenegro, which highlighted the continued existence of substantial quantities of firearms from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries, the Forensic Center and UNDP in Montenegro initiated a joint project “Advancing the capacities of the Police Directorate in the field of custody chain, crime scene investigations and the forensic laboratory in the field of operations and investigations in detection and trafficking of explosives criminality.” The project has been of exceptional importance, as noted by the Forensic Center’s employees. In addition to building the Center’s capacities and elevating the operational standards, the project has also brought new practices to diversify investigative and laboratory methods, improving the expediency of field investigations, enhancing the reliability of on-site and laboratory evidence analysis, and ensuring the safety of employees. It was implemented with financial contributions from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, and Norway, along with the support of the European Union (EU) through the Western Balkans Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) Control Roadmap Multi-Partner Trust Fund.

Making safety a priority

Before the project initiation, the explosive testing laboratories were located within the Forensic Center. This was a precarious setup due to the potential dangers associated with explosive materials, primarily the risk of uncontrolled or accidental explosion. However, with the equipment acquired through this project, including a specialized laboratory and secure detonation chambers for explosive storage, the Forensic Center has been able to move the analysis of explosive materials to a dedicated and secure location instead of conducting it within their premises. This relocation has significantly improved the safety of the Forensic Center’s employees and ensured compliance with the highest standards for handling, analyzing, and storing explosive materials and substances.

“Such analyses were previously conducted with quality as well, but not with the level of safety we have achieved now. Thanks to the donated equipment, we can finally say that these types of analyses in Montenegro are performed safely and with advanced technology. Significant progress has been made in raising the limits of detection sensitivity, determining detonation velocity, and ensuring the functionality of electric detonators. These advancements directly impact the quality of forensic examinations and, consequently, the quality of verdicts rendered”, Sandra Kovačević, the Head of the Forensic Center, stated.

News pic W Balkans SALW Dec 2023 Montenegro program
News pic2 W Balkans SALW Dec 2023 Montenegro program
Modernizing the Forensic Center

In addition to enhancing safety, the essence of the project was the modernization of the operations of the Forensic Center in every respect, including evidence collection, analysis, interpretation, and report generation. The project's impact is evident in the proper handling and storage of evidentiary materials, processed with modern instrumental equipment, thereby adequately meeting the requirements of the judicial authorities.

Using 3D scanners and drones has revolutionized the crime scene investigation process. Kovačević explains that digitizing crime scene documentation was initiated by introducing 3D scanners provided through the project, accompanied by specialized training, marking a pioneering step in Montenegro.

“The results achieved with the use of 3D scanners during investigations have been outstanding, and due to its wide-ranging applicability, we will propose incorporating this device into the entire police system’s operations”, elaborates Kovačević.

She further emphasizes that using 3D scanners can be of significant value in legal proceedings requiring event reconstruction. This technological advancement enhances the precision and efficiency of forensic work and brings an innovative dimension to criminal investigations in Montenegro.

“When you capture a crime scene using a 3D scanner, through software modeling, you can revisit the scene of the crime at any stage to determine whether, based on witness statements, new circumstances, and evidence, something is feasible or not”, stated Kovačević.

In addition to the 3D scanner, the project has provided the Forensic Center with a drone, which is also used for conducting investigations into serious criminal offenses, alongside specialized training. Kovačević attests to the drone's advantages based on her first-hand experience in the field.

“Montenegro’s mountainous terrain has presented situations where evidence might have been discarded down a slope or in rugged, inaccessible areas. Before deciding whether to dispatch a team to such challenging terrain, we can survey the area using the drone. There are also instances, for example, in drug plantation cases, where we're dealing with hectares of land, and the drone allows us to survey the area”, employees of the Forensic Center emphasize.

Kovačević underscores that equipment alone is usually insufficient to elevate the quality of any laboratory. The Center designed and carried out a comprehensive training program for forensic examination of crime scenes and training for analyzing and characterizing explosives as evidentiary material.

News pic Western Balkan SALW program in Montenegro
News pic2 Western Balkan SALW program in Montenegro


Reliability of evidence and laboratory accreditation

In addition to enhancing safety and modernizing operations, the Forensic Center was supported by the project in improving the reliability of the evidence. Beyond acquiring equipment and expanding knowledge among the staff, the Forensic Center has gained international endorsement for new methods in terms of applying the international ISO/IEC 17025 standard and is fully prepared to broaden. More concretely, forensic methods for physical and chemical examinations of explosives and explosive devices will get accredited as a result of the project, maximizing the credibility of forensic evidence gained hereby, utilized in national judicial proceedings, and eligible for cross-border exchange. This achievement is of paramount importance, given that the work of the Forensic Center is pivotal in delivering valid evidence upon which verdicts are based. 

Laboratory accreditation according to international standards ensures that the results obtained are reliable and internationally acceptable. Furthermore, it signifies that every step of the Forensic Center’s work is meticulously documented and monitored, rendering the entire work process transparent and credible. This accreditation is a testament to the commitment to upholding the highest standards of quality and integrity in pursuing justice.

“When EU countries exchange data with other nations, they rely solely on results obtained from accredited laboratories and will always inquire whether the result they wish to share is from an accredited laboratory. This is especially crucial regarding DNA or fingerprint data continuously shared through databases. It reflects trust in the quality of work. Although not legally defined, the fact that we are an accredited laboratory instills confidence in the results presented during trials”, Kovačević concludes.

Furthermore, by conducting advanced training in the forensic examination of crime scenes related to gender-based violence for 18 participants from across Montenegro, the Center, with the help of the project, has incentivized improved crime scene investigations in this area and opened a broad spectrum for enhancing the forensic response to these types of criminal acts. Therefore, the collaboration of the UNDP, the Forensic Center, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs will continue in the upcoming phase of the project within the  Western Balkans Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) Control Roadmap Multi-Partner Trust Fund. By providing coordinated and sustained support to jurisdictions in the Western Balkans in implementing the Roadmap for a sustainable solution to the illegal possession, misuse and trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW)/firearms and their ammunition in the Western Balkans by 2024and with the engagement of the UNDP, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, donors, and partners, the Fund fosters cooperation among competent authorities in the region to achieve the Roadmap goals.

Contribution to the Roadmap goals

The reduction of the risk of uncontrolled proliferation at the local and regional levels, as well as the risk of illegal possession, misuse, and trafficking of firearms, ammunition, and explosives, is the central focus of the Roadmap for a sustainable solution to the illegal possession, misuse and trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW)/firearms and their ammunition in the Western Balkans by 2024, jointly developed by regional governments with the support of UNDP SEESAC. Through numerous activities, including reducing the number of weapons through destruction, Montenegro has already made significant contributions to fulfilling the Roadmap goals with the support of UNDP. Further progress has been made with the standardization of forensic work processes, particularly toward standardizing procedures and practices in arms control and investigating firearms, ammunition, and explosives.

Moreover, the diversification and enhancement of the quality of forensic evidence and intelligence data contribute to another significant goal of the Roadmap: ensuring that criminal investigations related to explosives are grounded in facts and criminal intelligence.

Ultimately, providing a more comprehensive array of reliable forensic evidence and intelligence data will increase the effectiveness of criminal judicial proceedings related to firearms, ammunition, and explosives in Montenegro and internationally. This, in turn, contributes to reducing the illicit flow of weapons, ammunition, and explosives, not only within the Western Balkans but also beyond its borders.

News pic3 W Balkans SALW Dec 2023 Montenegro program
News pic4 W Balkans SALW Dec 2023 Montenegro program

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