Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Serb Officer Deprived of Sleep Ahead of Trial

He says UN prison guards wake him up every half hour to check whether he is still alive.
By Simon Jennings
A former senior official in the Bosnian Serb army who is awaiting trial for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has complained of being deprived of sleep by staff at the United Nations prison in The Hague.



Zdravko Tolimir raised the matter with the judge at a court hearing which took place this week to facilitate preparations for the trial. The defendant, who has been seriously ill during his detention in the UN prison, said security guards look into his cell and wake him up throughout the night to check his health.



“[I] ask you as pre-trial judge to look into how I am being deprived of sleep for the past two years. I am being deprived of sleep every half an hour,” he said.



“[Guards] wake me up and then leave my cell. I think that is totally unacceptable.”



Tolimir was the assistant commander for intelligence and security of the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 Bosnian war and is charged with genocide and other crimes in relation to the execution of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995.



He was a top aide of war crimes fugitive General Ratko Mladic during the war and was initially indicted in February 2005. He was due to stand trial alongside other senior military and police officials - known as the “Srebrenica Seven”- serving in the enclave whose trial is now nearing completion. However his case was separated as he was not arrested until May 2007.



“What kind of doctor gives you a poison to keep you alive?” Tolimir asked in court, in reference to being woken up at regular intervals. “He is destroying me by depriving me of sleep just to find out the moment when I’m going to die. I would personally like to know the moment when I am going to die but it is up to God to decide on that, not me.”



Tolimir, who has elected to represent himself at trial rather than use a lawyer, was concerned about the repercussions of a lack of sleep on his ability to conduct his case.



“I can’t come in to trial if I haven’t had some proper sleep. Everybody knows that,” he said.



“My soul is suffering, not only my body. It is a victim because I am being woken up every half an hour.”



Judge Kimberly Prost noted that this was not the first time Tolimir had raised the problem. She said she “took the matter seriously” and had brought it to the attention of officials at the prison.



She said that according to medical opinion at the prison it was necessary to monitor the defendant and the judges were not going to second guess their assessment.



The judge said that a device had been made available to the defendant to monitor him without the need to be physically woken up by the guards.



“I am satisfied particularly with the option that has been provided to you that the [UN prison] is giving you the opportunity by way of the device to have your health monitored over the evening hours and at the same time to do so with no disruption,” she said.



However Tolimir protested that the “low frequency device” which, he said, emits signals about his movements, was not the solution as it had been used for “inhumane purposes”.



He said he had not been taking any medication for the last two years and did not see why he needed to be monitored, “It’s not up to the doctor to impose these draconian measures. Worse measures or measures like that have not even been applied in concentration camps, so please bear that in mind, this is an international tribunal in the 21st century after all.”



The judge said the defendant’s concern was one she took “very seriously” but that the judges would not put themselves in the place of medical officials in assessing the medical needs of the defendant.



She added that she would encourage the least invasive options in terms of the monitoring of Tolimir’s health and said he could approach prison staff to discuss provisions for a second medical opinion on his condition.



In other matters discussed in court this week, Tolimir confirmed that he would be able to file his pre-trial brief by the end of September. Meanwhile, it emerged that little progress had been made between the defendant and the prosecution on agreed facts in the case in advance of the trial. Judge Prost urged the parties to come to some understanding in order to facilitate later proceedings.



Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.