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

Storm Over Escape from Bosnian Prison

Controversial Bosnian law under scrutiny after war crimes convict escapes from prison.
By Merdijana Sadović
Bosnian Serb Radovan Stankovic, convicted of wartime rapes in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca, escaped last week en route to the hospital where he was taken for a dental appointment.

The escape, which was carefully planned and most likely assisted by some of the prison guards, caused a storm in Bosnia and prompted the resignation of the director of the Foca prison.

More importantly, it raised questions about a controversial Bosnian law that allowed Stankovic to serve his sentence in the town where he committed his crimes and where he had a big network of supporters.

Stankovic, who was the first Hague war crimes suspect to be transferred from the tribunal to the Bosnian war crimes court, was recently sentenced on appeal to 20 years in prison for rape, torture and enslavement of Bosnian Muslim women in Foca in 1992.

The Bosnian court then sent him to a prison in Foca where he was supposed to serve his sentence.

On May 25, Stankovic was taken to a hospital because he complained about a toothache. It seemed prison officials took precautionary measures and sent nine instead of the usual three guards to escort him. But when Stankovic got out of the vehicle, he started running towards a car parked in front the hospital with its engine running and sped off towards the city centre.

The guards didn’t shoot at him, or at the car he was in, despite clear orders that they should use weapons in case the prisoner tried to escape. They weren’t even holding his arms when he was walking towards the hospital, thus breaking more rules.

Although it was clear Stankovic would try to cross the border with Serbia, the Republika Srpska, RS, authorities didn’t request an Interpol warrant for his arrest until two days after the escape, which gave him plenty of time to find refuge in Serbia, say observers.

The guards who escorted Stankovic and failed to prevent his flight are currently under investigation and the prison director, Aleksandar Cicmil, has been fired.

The escape and the sloppy investigation into the incident sparked angry reactions throughout Bosnia, especially in the Federation.

Bosnia's minister of human rights and refugees, Safet Halilovic, accused Bosnian Serb police of "helping those who have committed war crimes".

"It was unacceptable to allow Stankovic to serve his sentence in the [town] where he lived and committed crimes," he told Onasa news agency.

RS prime minister Milorad Dodik agreed, telling reporters in Banja Luka on May 31 that it had been a mistake to hold Stankovic in Foca.

“This is not our problem, because we didn’t send Stankovic to Foca. It was the Bosnian court’s decision,” he said.

On May 29, the president of the Bosnian court, Medzida Kreso, held a press conference at which she said judges and prosecutors are now under police protection, because during the court proceedings Stankovic sent death threats to them.

"This shouldn't have happened," Kreso told reporters at the news conference. "The security of our judges and prosecutors has been endangered and this sends a very bad message to victims and witnesses."

Representatives of the association Women Victims of War in Sarajevo said the rape victims who testified at Stankovic’s trial would also demand police protection, because he threatened them as well.

Stankovic was known for extremely volatile behaviour in court. At a referral hearing, held at the Hague tribunal before his case was transferred to Bosnia, he yelled at representatives of the Bosnian court.

Later, he refused to attend the proceeding in Sarajevo and threatened to strip off his clothes in the courtroom if he were forced to be present at the trial.

Bosnia currently has only two prisons suitable for convicts who have to serve long sentences. One is in Foca, and the other in Zenica, in the Federation.

A spokesperson for the Bosnian justice ministry Marina Bakic told IWPR that the Bosnian court had the right to send Stankovic to Zenica if they felt Foca prison wasn’t an appropriate facility for him.

She also said a state prison is being built near Sarajevo, which should prevent a repetition of the Stankovic incident. But it will cost more than 14 million euros, and it will take some time before that money is found.

“At best, it will be finished 18 months after we have all the money we need,” said Bakic.

Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.

More IWPR's Global Voices