Tribunal Prison Lottery

Length of sentence and conditions of imprisonment depend on the country in which inmates serve their time.

Tribunal Prison Lottery

Length of sentence and conditions of imprisonment depend on the country in which inmates serve their time.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

For those convicted by the Hague tribunal, a great deal rests on where they end up being jailed.


Imprisonment in Finland, for example, means that an inmate is likely to be placed in a relatively comfortable cell, equipped with a toilet, shower, and even a television. After serving two-thirds of their sentence, they could apply for early release.


Serving a sentence in the United Kingdom, on the other hand, means being confined in an overcrowded and generally less luxurious prison. The convict, however, could apply for early release after serving only half of their sentence.


The disparity in the terms of punishment has to do with the very nature of the tribunal itself.


Those awaiting trial or being tried by the tribunal are held at the UN Detention Unit, UNDU, in the resort town of Scheveningen near The Hague. But because the tribunal is not a permanent court, it does not have long-term prison facilities.


Instead, it has signed special agreements with 10 European countries to house those convicted by the tribunal in their domestic prison systems.


That means that convicts could find themselves jailed in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden or the United Kingdom.


To date, four prisoners have been sent to Finland, three to Norway, three to Spain, two to Germany, two to Austria, one to Sweden and one to Italy. Of these, 13 are still serving their sentences. Four others were granted early release before being transferred from The Hague.


With such a choice of locations, how does the tribunal decide where a person should serve his sentence?


Jim Landale, a spokesperson for the tribunal, said that it's up to the court's president to decide where an inmate will be imprisoned.


The president can take "just about anything" into account, Landale explained, including the wishes of the proposed country, the accused, the prosecution, and the Registry [court administrators]. It's an "open process", he said, with "a lot of back and forth".


For example, Spain will not accept anyone who is slated to serve more than 30 years - the country's maximum prison term. Germany will only take people only on a case-by-case basis.


Finding the right host country for an individual prisoner can take a bit of doing. There are currently seven people waiting to learn where they will serve out their sentences. They include: Radislav Krstic, Ranko Cesic, Mitar Vasiljevic, Dragan Obrenovic, Miroslav Tadic, Predrag Banovic, and Milorad Krnojelac.


The situation of Damir Dosen, a Bosnian Serb shift commander at the Keraterm camp, where approximately 7,000 non-Serb prisoners were detained in the early 1990s, is an example of how where an inmate is imprisoned can affect the length of his sentence.


After pleading guilty in September, 2001 and given a 5-year sentence in November of that year, for his role in crimes against humanity at the camp, Dosen was sentenced to five years and sent to the Graz-Karlau penitentiary in Austria.


Counting the two years Dosen had already spent in the tribunal's custody, however, he became eligible for early release under Austrian law in February 2003. Judge Claude Jorda, who was then serving as the tribunal's president, considered the recommendation of the prison's director, and even went so far as to interview Dosen himself before agreeing to his release.


If the president decides that the person should not get an early release, pardon, or commutation, the prisoner would be returned to the tribunal's custody. Landale said he was not aware of any instances in which this has happened.


The cost of transporting convicts to the individual prisons is born by the tribunal, while the expenses related to their imprisonment are paid for by the individual states.


Prison conditions in the countries where the inmates are sent must adhere to international standards, according to the agreements signed between the states and the tribunal.


Among other things, these standards prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, and require a respect for a prisoner's religious beliefs. They mandate that inmates have access to adequate food, water, and medical care.


To ensure that these requirements are met, the agreements provide for prison inspections by the International Committee of the Red Cross, or, in the case of the tribunal's agreement with Spain, by another independent commission.


Still, significant differences exist in the facilities provided by participating states.


"Historically, prison conditions in Scandinavia have been better than in other parts of Europe because of the small numbers of people in prison," said Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies. "Every prisoner had a cell of his own. In other places there was overcrowding, so prisoners would share cells."


Scandinavian nations are also seen as having relatively progressive attitudes towards imprisonment. "People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment," said Coyle.


Vappu Aura, an information officer with Finland's criminal sanctions agency, said that prison staffers there do their best "to communicate and work closely with prisoners; the relationship is based on trust and open communication". For example, prison guards do not carry weapons, she explained.


Other differences concern how much time prisoner can spend time with his family, Coyle said.


"Mediterranean countries have family visits where the family comes in and stays overnight with the prisoner," he said. "Scandinavian countries have visits where the family comes in the day, and spousal visits [which may last approximately 3 hours] are more sterile....


"In the UK, there's no question of any intimate relations. The visit is in a very public room. At best the visitors and the prisoner sit on opposite sides of a table. At worst, there is no physical contact at all."


Still to be decided is the fate of prisoners who will serve sentences after the tribunal formally goes out of existence in 2010.


"There will have to be a mechanism put in place" to deal with that, Landale conceded, but nothing has yet been decided.


At least one prisoner sent by the tribunal to a Scandinavian country has not been satisfied with her accommodations there.


Former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, who is serving an 11-year sentence at Hinseberg women's prison in Sweden, has reportedly complained her cell is filled with poisonous gas. Prison officials have denied the charge.


Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague


Support our journalists