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

Detention Unit Case

Tribunal Update 89: Last Week in The Hague (10-15 August, 1998)

As could be expected, numerous enemies of the Tribunal in the former and, especially in the present, Yugoslavia (FRY), tried to use recent events in order to discredit the International Criminal Tribunal whose legitimacy they had contested from the very beginning and with which they are refusing to cooperate. The Tribunal was accused by FRY's Justice Ministry in Belgrade of being directly responsible for the deaths in its Detention Unit, which the regime's media have begun to describe as Auschwitz and a concentration camp for Serbs "unjustly accused of war crimes."

Two investigations are underway on the death of Kovacevic: the Tribunal's internal investigation and the Dutch official one. But in the absence of an official version on the causes and circumstances of his death, various unofficial but allegedly reliable versions have been launched, telling of how the accused "died a slow and painful death... despite repeated calls for help over a period of five hours."

According to one, after having heard "the cries of a dying man... Kovacevic's fellow prisoners began banging on their cell doors to alert the Dutch guards... who were apparently fast asleep." And, when the guards finally showed up for their regular 9 a.m. round, the same version claims, "they discovered Kovacevic near death, and other prisoners, including Dusko Tadic (a Serb), Tihomir Blaskic (a Croat) and a Rwandan Hutu Minister ... frantically attempted to revive him."

Belgrade doctor, Dr Slobodan Ivanovic, took on the role of a confirming judge in what is becoming the "Detention Unit case." Upon his return from a visit to the Hague and the Detention Unit, Ivanovic told the Belgrade media at the beginning of last week, that the detainees are "depressed" and "enraged" as a result of the bad overall conditions in which they find themselves, and the circumstances of Kovacevic's death. He also said that they were planning "an uprising and a general strike." After such strong and incriminating statements, it looked as if nothing could prevent the "Detention Unit case" from coming under international scrutiny.

The Tribunal, however, was aided unexpectedly by the detainees themselves. At the beginning of last week, the detainees formed a four-member multi-ethnic delegation made up of Zejnil Delalic, a Bosniak; Tihomir Blaskic and Dario Kordic, Croats; and Simo Zaric, a Serb.

In a meeting with the Tribunal's spokesman, the Registry's Press Release of 12 August stated, the delegation "expressed the wish to be able to publicly set the record straight about their conditions of detention, by issuing an open letter to the ICTY president signed by all the detainees." The registrar of the Tribunal agreed to this request and the ICTY president approved the release of the detainees' letter, which we include below.

An Open Letter To The President Of The ICTY From The Detainees At The UN Detention Unit

"We have become aware of recent reports in the media picturing us among other things as depressed and preparing for riots. These reports do not have any substance--we are in a better position than anyone else to say that reports of this kind are complete nonsense and lies.

These reports reflect neither the atmosphere within the Detention Unit nor our state of mind. They are the result of malicious disinformation (sic) and harm us by trivialising the core of our real concerns about our conditions of detention.

The deaths of Dr Dokmanovic and Mr Kovacevic have had a heavy impact on all of us. Every one of us has reacted to these tragic events in his own way. But they have also brought about something positive: we have become closer.

Putting aside the emotional aspects of our situation, we have collectively discussed our conditions of detention and decided to suggest improvements: notwithstanding the efforts made by the current management of the Detention Unit and in spite of the decent and fair treatment given to all of us by the management, there are in our view still important shortcomings.

Wishing to express our real concerns in a fair and open manner, we discussed them with the Commanding Officer of the Detention Unit and on 3 August 1998 we set them forth in a letter to the president and the registrar of the ICTY. This letter was signed without hesitation by all of us.

The key remarks in this letter concern our request for daily adequate medical care, for more fresh air and exercise, for more and better food, for a better accommodation for the visits of our immediate family and lawyers, and for the possibility to receive TV and radio programmes from our own countries. We have invited the president and the registrar to visit us and to meet us in person in order to discuss these issues.

We have also prepared a separate document which has been forwarded by the Registry of the Tribunal to the president of the Tribunal, the Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, as well as to the Dutch authorities (Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

In this document we identified five "crucial issues": the need for fair and speedy trials, the inequality of resources available to the prosecution over the defence, the biased publicity given to our cases by concentrating on the prosecution, the improvement of our conditions of detention and the lack of care in examining indictments before issuing arrest warrants.

Far from being depressed, we are seeking ways to increase our hope and faith that it is worth fighting for justice and truth."

The letter was signed by all 26 detainees in the UN Detention Unit, except for the mysterious "Rwandan Hutu minister" who figured in one of the unofficial versions about the circumstances of Kovacevic's death. Understandably, the letter was not signed by the twenty-seventh accused, Milan Simic, who is at home in Bosanski Samac awaiting the beginning of his trial, having been provisionally released due to health problems (he suffers from partial paralysis and is confined to a wheel-chair).

In a recent interview to the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad, however, Simic spoke at length and favourably, about the conditions in the Detention Unit where he had spent some six weeks. He described all the privileges and exemptions the detainees enjoy: the common room supplied with newspapers from their own countries (including the Croatian edition of Playboy) and equipped with pay-TV channels, a dartboard, and a table tennis table.

He also described the kindness with which other detainees treated him, as well as their sense of mutual respect and desire to help each other out, regardless of their ethnic origin and their past, which, he said, the detainees never discussed. Simic concluded that the Tribunal's Detention Unit is "the only place where the Dayton agreements are being carried out."

Given the extent of state televisions obsession with nationalism and the past in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the "Dayton atmosphere" and peaceful coexistence at the Detention Unit might be seriously jeopardised if the detainees' request for TV-programmes from their homelands is granted.

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