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Serbian Prison Mutiny

Serbia's new administration offers rioting prisoners amnesty deal in an effort to end their rebellion.
By Miroslav Filipovic

A wave of riots involving an estimated 10,000 prisoners in Serbian jails has thrown up an unexpected challenge for Vojislav Kostunica and his DOS alliance in advance of December's parliamentary election.


Those involved in the unprecedented rioting are demanding an amnesty as a condition for ending the revolt, which has turned some prisons into war zones.


There are unconfirmed rumours of deaths in Sremska Mitrovica jail after wardens opened fire on inmates. In Nis, a prisoner died after he fell off the roof of a building taken over by the rioters. Arson and general violence has caused damage estimated to run into tens of millions of German marks.


The public's view is that the rioting grew out of tensions between Serbian and Albanian prisoners, but this is a misplaced. As the Federal Minister for Ethnic Minorities Dr Rasim Ljajic has pointed out, the two groups of inmates have shown a high degree of solidarity throughout the protests, which were sparked by the inhumane treatment prisoners endure.


International humanitarian organisations have long criticised the inadequate medical care, poor food and harsh conditions in Serbian jails. Life is even harder for Kosovo Albanian inmates, who number around 1000, according to the authorities.


Protesters claim that Albanian prisoners sleep on concrete floors, receive fewer meals than Serb prisoners and almost no medical care. National television recently broadcast shocking pictures of a prison ward in Sremska Mitrovica. Inmates described the room, where sick Albanian prisoners lay on bare mattresses amidst filth and squalor, as "one of the better wards". During my own incarceration in the Nis military prison, I met Kosovo Albanians who had been transferred from the civilian prisons of Pozarevac and Nis.


My fellow inmate Agin Krasnici described their ordeal, "Those Albanians who survived their treatment at the hands of the police - and many of them did not - were sent on to the Pozarevac prison. On arrival they were separated from the others and moved to a special wing where the regime was far harsher. The food was dismal, clothing inadequate, healthcare non-existent. We feared for our lives at all times."


Albanian remand prisoners and inmates cannot receive visitors and as they often have no money, many are never able to change their clothes. The Belgrade branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross supplies food and clothing, but as I witnessed myself, the parcels are regularly pillaged - or even stolen outright, by the wardens. In Nis, several wardens at the military prison were prosecuted after taking large sums of money from Albanian prisoners for "favours" which were then not forthcoming. One warden confided to me that, "the old rubber batons were best for beating prisoners. They were flexible and did not cause serious bodily harm. These new American ones are very tough and don't bend even if you hit the wall. Well, in Nis prison they managed to soften them up on Albanian backs."


Nor can Albanian prisoners expect much help from their legal representatives. Serbian defence lawyers, with no real interest in providing a proper defence for their Albanian clients, charge extortionate fees. Some even indulge in blackmail. While they may not suffer the "special treatment" of their Albanian fellow inmates, prison life is no picnic for Serb prisoners either. The governor of Sremska Mitrovica jail, Trivun Ivkovic, has been dismissed and charged with torture and the suspected exploitation of his prisoners.


Ivkovic recently told a Belgrade weekly that he is still a member of the Socialist Party of Serbia and remains loyal to Slobodan Milosevic and his family.


Remand prisoners who have not yet been convicted might expect less punitive conditions. Instead, they suffer more than inmates who are already serving their sentences. In advance of their trials, they are totally at the mercy of the courts and wardens. They have no right to legal representation and cannot even discuss their case with a lawyer.


As it can take up to a year for charges to be brought, their plight is a desperate one. If they are Kosovo Albanians, their life may also be in danger as torture is commonplace. A warden at Sremska Mitrovica prison described to me a number of severe beatings. In response to prisoner demands for a government pardon, the Serbian Ministry of Justice has promised that it will start drafting an Amnesty Law within three days of a cessation of the protests and submit the draft legislation to parliament within seven days.


The Federal Foreign Minister and leader of the Civic Council of Serbia, Goran Svilanovic, commented that the protests are a direct result of many years of suffering under the old regime. The new government will support democracy and fair conditions for all inmates in Serbian prisons, he said.


Indeed, all parties in the DOS coalition agree that prisoner demands must be taken seriously. The Federal Minister of Interior Affairs and former opposition mayor of Nis, Zoran Zivkovic, claims that prisoners have a right to expect conditions on a par with those in Western penal institutions. Whether such standards can be achieved in such an impoverished country remains to be seen.


Miroslav Filipovic is a regular IWPR contributor