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INFO   :::  Reports - PAGE 3 > Annual Report 2000 > Text



Human Rights in Serbia 2000


III - Prisons


1. Situation in prisons

In penitentiaries Serbia-wide convicts staged riots in December 5-early December 2000 period, which irrespective of their possible political background, drew attention to numerous problems related to the enforcement of prison sentences.

According to the Serbian Ministry of Justice and press and electronic media coverage, rioting began on 5 November 2000 at 23 ha and 25 minutes in Sremska Mitrovica penitentiary. Convicts demanded improvement of prison conditions, in terms of major subsidies, treatment, health care and equitable treatment of all convicts. A demand was also voiced that the Amnesty Act, embracing all convicts and all offences, be adopted as quickly as possible. Dissatisfaction was voiced with the pardon of a large number of Albanians by the new FRY president. All in all 29 demands were placed. Uprising quickly spread to Nis and Pozarevac penitentiaries, two days later to Padinska Skela and the Belgrade District Court prison, and then to smaller prisons in Serbia. Both the Justice Ministry officials and convicts repeatedly stressed there were no inter-ethnic conflicts during the uprising. In Serbia there are 21 district prisons, 5 correctional facilities for men and one for women. There are 7,5000 convicts in all Serbian prisons.

In Sremska Mitrovica the uprising was started by 1,000 inmates of a total of 1,300. It was a very dramatic development. As convicts torched and smashed all the premises, a large damage was incurred. A group of convicts spent seven days on the prison roof. Similar scenario was played out in Nis and Pozarevac penitentiaries. Interestingly enough rebelled convicts of the Nis penitentiary demanded pay hikes for all the prison staff.

Justice Co-Ministers of the Republic of Serbia regularly negotiated with representatives of convicts. According to the Justice Ministry communiques convicts were promised that the National Parliament of Serbia would debate the Amnesty Act at its 23 December session, but only if the situation in prisons normalized immediately. The aforementioned communiques also stated that while the inmates' demands were justified, such a violent kind of protest-was not.

Circumstances which led to the uprising, synchronized protests in prisons Serbia-wide and political developments indicated that the uprising was stage-managed and orchestrated by the top State Security leadership, which was not dismissed after the 5 October events and installation of the new authorities. It was assumed that the State Security Services intended to destroy documentation on various misuses by the prison administrations and spread feelings of insecurity among citizens at large. It is well known that the State Security Services in the past used convicts to carry out different tasks, even to liquidate their political "opponents." It was leaked on several occasions that the prison administrators received kickbacks for the release of Albanians and conditional release of some convicts.

Involvement of the State Security Services in the prison uprising became evident when Rade Markovic, Head of the SSS, escorted Flora Brovina, President of the League of Albanian Women, on 9 November, to the Nis penitentiary. The Republican Justice Ministry explained that Markovic was there to protect Brovina, while Markovic himself said that he was a member of the federal and republican delegation.

However, despite all speculations as to the causes of the uprising, situation in the Serbian prisons is so dire that it needs urgent both domestic and foreign assistance and intervention. A decade-long isolation of the country favored inhuman conditions in many prisons and poor security measures in prison hospitals. Hence the convicts' demands related to urgent improvement of prison conditions and treatment are justified.

Frequent psychological and physical torture, degrading and cruel treatment of inmates speak of gross violations of personal integrity within the prison walls. Food is insipid and bad and meat is rarely eaten. Hygiene conditions are sub-standard. Heating is irregular, while some rooms accommodate up to 50 beds. Contact with the external world is restricted, and telephones are often not accessible to convicts. Convicts of the Sremska Mitrovica penitentiary stated that some of them were beaten 150 times by batons as a punishment, while cutting the convicts with shaving blades was portrayed by the prison authorities as 'self-mutilation'. It was also said that some convicts were not handed their mail for years, while some were intentionally starved. Medical care war provided irregularly. There were problems with the use of solitary cells, discipline, inspection control, regime of activities, system of complaints and medical services.

On 8 November 2000 a long-standing director of the Sremska Mitrovica penitentiary was arrested under suspicion of misuse of his official capacity. He is still in custody.

The Act on Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions, passed on 15 April 1997, has numerous shortcomings, mainly stemming from its non-harmonization with international norms and standards. This Act does not provide for the functional protection of inmates from mental and physical torture. Furthermore the Act does not include provisions ensuring full control of prison work and conditions. Judicial bodies are vested only in formal and restricted right to control the prisons, while foreign and domestic humanitarian organizations and NGOs have no access whatsoever to prisons in Serbia. Under the aforementioned Act the prison administration is tasked with enforcement of criminal sanctions.

Due to all the aforementioned problems and shortcomings it is necessary to immediately draw up a new Act on Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions. System of enforcement of prison sentences must be brought into line with the international legal acts, conventions, and widely accepted standards. Conditions under which prison sentences are enforced are regulated by general provisions of international conventions on human rights, the European Prison Rules and Standards of Minimum Rules on Treatment of Convicts. International standards restrict long solitary cell confinement, use of handcuffs and chains, and use of force by law-enforcement officials. International conventions and rules clearly define cases of physical and mental torture.

Standards of Minimum Rules on Treatment of Inmates, adopted by the UN, clearly define conditions for enforcement of prison sentences, describe in detail prison cells, solitary cells, conditions of personal hygiene and institutional hygiene, prison food, clothes, medical care, discipline, punishment, methods of coercion, contacts with external world and treatment of mentally ill convicts and special categories of convicts.

The new Act must provide for the possibility of free complaints of inmates, permanent control of prison administration and convicts, and security measures relating to prison sentences. However introduction of new laws, standards and rules shall not improve the overall prison situation, unless educational and training programs for prison personnel are launched. They should be first taught the basics of human rights, rules and standards related to treatment of convicts, psychological status of inmates, and the need for their genuine rehabilitation. Prison administration and personnel tend to think that convicts in prisons should be additionally punished. In other worlds a general standard that convicts already punished by prison sentences, should not be additionally punished has not been honored.

International financial assistance is urgently needed as is foreign assistance in organization and control of prison work, and in educational and training programs. In view of poor prison conditions and the recent riots an initiative for setting up a special committee for the prevention of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment should be launched. That committees should be modeled on the European Committee established by the European Convention on Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Penalties and Treatment. A similar committee should be urgently set up in Serbia. It should be composed of experts in human rights, penology, psychiatry, judges, professors, and those with professional experience in criminal sanctions enforcement. That committee would operate outside the judicial system and would take on the role of a control and prevention body, as required by the interim period developments.


2. Private prisons

In the wake of political changes media speculations on existence of private prisons in Serbia became rife. It was repeatedly stressed that prominent abductees Ivan Stambolic, judge Simeunovic and some wealthy individuals were held in private prisons pending their ransom payment. There are indications that such prisons may indeed exist. The police have not uncovered any such prison, whereas the top police officials publicly denied their existence.

Miroslav Todorovic, one of the dismissed judges of the Belgrade District Court, told daily "Borba" (22 December 2000) that there were 10 such prisons in Serbia, and that their owners were individuals who had amassed wealth through racketeering and acting as loan sharks. He said he had met several citizens subjected to torture in those jails. According to Todorovic the jails were built like bunkers and were equipped with torture devices.

One of the police co-ministers, Slobodan Todorovic, in his interview to Vecernje Novosti daily (23 December 2000) denied the existence of those jails, and asked the gossip-mongers to produce 'hard' evidence.

Irrespective of the police disclaimers it is believed that there are several such prisons in Serbia, set up by the State Security Services to eliminate opponents of the former regime

Vreme weekly in its 28 December issue ran an analysis of data gathered on private prisons. It stated among other things that the State Security Services used different flats for holding "suspects" and 'interviewing' them." Those who underwent such treatment were in no position to prove that their "jailers" were the SSS agents, and also lacked courage to report their calvary. Speculation is rife in the Belgrade Palace of Justice that judge Nebojsa Simeunovic, prior to his drowning, was held captive for twenty days in one of those prisons.

The same article stressed that "existence of criminal gangs specializing in debt-repayment is not disputable, in view of slowness of judicial proceedings. One anonymous interviewee even stated that those gangs had good co-operation with the police, which supplied them with data on their debtors. Frequent abductions and hand-over of ransom-without the police intervention- indicate that the long-standing crisis in the judiciary and the police contributes to criminalisation of the society. Hence there must be a grain of truth in the stories about private prisons.


3. Private detective agency "Ozna"

Private detective agency "Ozna" caught the public attention in November 1999 when its owner, Zivorad Jovanovic, disclosed that he was engaged in tracking down missing and imprisoned Serbs and Albanians. According to his account a deal was struck with a brother of a missing Albanian to effect the exchange of three Serb abductees for his brother (if found) in lieu of DM 30,000 compensation (fees). Zivorad Jovanovic then stated that public at large would be duly notified of results of his search. Authorities then failed to respond to his statement, but it caught attention of families of missing persons in Kosovo. On 29 January 2000 at 13.00 h, in Merdare, three Albanians were handed over to their families, while three Serbs were simultaneously handed over to "Ozna" detectives in place Rozaje. Identity of exchanged persons was "a business secret," and its disclosure was also banned by their respective families. As promised, Jovanovic held a press conference, but divulged only some details of the exchange operation. One Albanian and his neighbor were imprisoned in Pozarevac, while the third one was in Sremska Mitrovica penitentiary. On 28 January all three were sentenced on 12, that is 14 months of prison for "staging armed sentry vigil of their village," but as they had already served that time in prison, they were released and exchanged. Jovanovic stressed that he was congratulated by "the top military leadership of the country" and that an intense search for missing policemen Ljubisav Biocanin and Miodrag Krstic and some YA soldiers was under way. He also disclosed that "Ozna" was contacted by a father of a missing Albanian, who "offered" five Serbs in exchange for his son. He also stressed that "Ozna" only took on search of persons gone missing by 1 September 1999, in order to discourage further abductions.

Media coverage on the first exchange of Serbs and Albanians caused numerous public reactions, notably of lawyers and jurists, who called into question legitimacy of the entire operation and of the opposition parties who blamed state authorities and the ruling regime for lethal consequences of the Kosovo war adventure. But many citizens welcomed that action and some maintained that "thanks to Ozna efforts human lives were saved."

However on 8 October 2000 Vladan Lukic, District Prosecutor in Kragujevac, at the request of the republican prosecutor's Office ordered a probe into "Ozna" activities The then republican Justice Minister Dragoljub Jankovic sharply reacted to the entire case by announcing rigorous judiciary measures. He also hinted at the possibility that "some non-judiciary persons, who are currently under investigation, were embroiled in the case." District Public Prosecutor stressed that he was interested in discovering any unlawful elements of the operation, the way the agency found the Albanian convicts and Serbian prisoners, and its fees for the whole operation." Owner of agency Zivorad Jovanovic amended his original story by admitting that the agency was registered for security operations, that the three practically released Albanians were safely escorted to their family and the three 'liberated' Serbs were taken over from an Albanian.

Private agency "Ozna" still operates, and the whole case was "glossed over" by the top leadership. Reliable sources maintain that many people were involved in the exchange, starting from prison guards, to judicial bodies, the police, State Security Services, and the high state officials. Public opinion knows that Albanians paid hefty amounts as "ransom" for the release of family members imprisoned in Serbian jails. According to a retired State Security colonel that was a good enough motive for the "justice to turn a blind eye to the whole operation." A friend of Zivorad Jovanovic intimated that the former policeman (Jovanovic) had good ties and strong background...otherwise he could not have carried out the whole operation. But Jovanovic made a mistake by making public the whole case...he was probably motivated by some prosaic reasons, for example the agency's promotion."

Although it was stated that there were no other cases of exchange, it is possible that they simply have not been made public. In all likelihood "Ozna" continued its search for the missing, notably of Albanian descent and charged heavily for its services. One must pose a question whether the exchange scandal was accidentally mounted or it was an attention-getting vehicle, as "Ozna" obviously needed to attract a large number of Albanian clients willing to pay any price for the release of their next of kin.





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