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

Witnesses Say Conditions Good in Kula Prison

Former employees tell Mandic trial that detainees were well fed and treated fairly.
By Merdijana Sadović
The trial of former Bosnian Serb official Momcilo Mandic continued this week at Bosnia’s war crimes court in Sarajevo with defence witnesses who talked about conditions in the Kula prison.

They said there was plenty of food and that conditions in the Serb-run prison east of Sarajevo were very good. It was also claimed that Muslim and Croat detainees received fair treatment, including regular medical assistance.

Their testimony contradicted evidence from numerous prosecution witnesses, who said earlier in the trial that the conditions in Kula were “appalling” and that inmates were beaten, maltreated and often killed.

Before the war, Kula was a prison for petty criminals, but when fighting broke out in April 1992, Bosnian Serb forces took over and it became a detention facility for thousands of non-Serb civilians.

According to a document presented by the prosecution at the Hague trial of Bosnian Serb leader Mimcilo Krajisnk in November 2004 – at which Mandic himself testified for the prosecution – some 10,000 Muslim and Croat civilians passed through the prison during the first two years of the Bosnian war. The document was issued in October 1994 by the Republika Srpska, RS, commission in charge of monitoring the exchange of civilian prisoners during the war.

Between May and December 1992, Mandic served as justice minister in the Bosnian Serb government and was a close ally of the Hague tribunal’s top war crimes fugitive, Radovan Karadzic. Mandic is the most senior wartime Bosnian Serb government official to be tried so far in the Bosnian court.

According to the indictment, he was solely responsible for the administration of penal facilities in Republika Srpska at the beginning of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, and was the direct superior of all the management and staff in those institutions.

He is accused of crimes in Kula as well as a prison in Foca, eastern Bosnia, where hundreds of Muslims and Croats were unlawfully detained, tortured and killed.

The indictment further alleges that Mandic “planned and ordered the persecution of non-Serb civilians on political, national, ethnic and religious grounds” and that he failed to take action to prevent these crimes and punish those committing them.

In separate hearings held last summer in Sarajevo, Mandic – who four years ago was publicly accused by the United States of helping Karadzic escape justice and was described as his “major funding source” – was tried for various financial crimes. He was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Bosnian court for organised crime and corruption at the end of October last year.

A month later, his trial on war crimes charges began at the War Crimes Chamber of the same court. The defence started presenting its evidence on February 23 of this year.

During the prosecution phase of that trial, many former inmates of the Kula prison testified about appalling conditions in the facility, which was too small to accommodate all the detainees who were brought there between May and December 1992, the time relevant to the indictment.

They said sanitary conditions were poor and food was scarce. Many claimed to have lost 20-30 kilograms in just a few months. The court also heard evidence about the beatings, torture and mistreatment the inmates were allegedly subjected to on a daily basis.

This week, however, three defence witnesses painted a completely different picture of the prison.

The former cook at Kula, Voja Janjetovic, said there was “plenty of food” and the staff prepared three “very versatile meals” a day for all detainees. There was no reason for complaints, she claimed.

“We always prepared enough food for everyone, and those who wanted more would get extra portions, so that no one would be hungry,” she said. Janjetovic also told the court that guards and the prison staff ate the same food as the detainees and said sanitary conditions were “satisfactory”.

Medical technician Boro Trapara corroborated Janjetovic’s testimony. He worked at the Kula infirmary during the war and said he was personally in charge of “regular and rigorous controls of the quality of food prepared at Kula”.

“The meals were always freshly prepared and the inmates were getting milk and eggs regularly,” he said. He explained there was a farm adjacent to the prison, with some 20,000 chickens and 100 pigs, “so we had more than enough food”.

Trapara also told the court he provided medical assistance to everyone who came to the infirmary and claimed inmates were allowed to visit him any time they needed help.

When Judge Almiro Rodrigues asked Trapara whether he ever asked the inmates how and why they were brought to the prison, the witness replied: “No, that was not my business.”

He also said the injuries most inmates had “were minor scratches, blisters and bruises and they did not require special treatment”.

Prosecutor Behaija Krnic then mentioned the name of detainee Bahrudin Becirevic who – according to the documents presented in court this week – died soon after he received treatment from Trapara. The witness said he remembered Becirevic was wounded, but claimed “that happened before he was brought to Kula”.

“I treated his wound, but it was nothing serious,” he said.

He was adamant that the prisoners were not maltreated, because he “would have noticed that”.

He also dismissed the claims by prosecution witnesses that the sanitary conditions were terrible, saying that was “pure nonsense”, because “there were enough toilets, and they were clean”.

Mandic – who is a trained lawyer – also questioned the witness.

“If the food was that good and everyone received sufficient number of meals, how come so many witnesses at this trial said they lost a lot of weight? That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

Trapara replied: “It’s not uncommon for people to lose weight when they are under a lot of stress, even when they have enough food.”

“I myself lost 14 kilogrammes in 1992 because of the war, and I was eating regularly,” he added.

When Judge Rodrigues asked Trapara to clarify “what kind of stress the detainees were exposed to that could cause such dramatic weight loss”, Trapara said he didn’t know.

“It must be because they were imprisoned – no one is too happy when they are detained,” he said.

While the prosecution claims Mandic – who had an office at Kula in 1992 – was aware thousands of civilians were detained there unlawfully and kept in overcrowded prison cells for months, the defence is trying to prove that the Bosnian Serb army was in charge of those prisoners and that their client had no influence over the army.

A third witness who testified this week – former prison guard Ranko Tesanovic – said that soon after the war broke out in April 1992, the Bosnian Serb army “was given one part of the Kula prison” to which regular guards, including himself, had no access. He said he believed the army was using its section of the jail to hold captured Muslims and Croats, who were then exchanged for detained Serbs.

“I don’t know what was going on there,” he said. “That part of the prison was run and guarded by the army.”

The trial will continue on April 17.

Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


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