I am absolutely thrilled to feature this fascinating guest-post by Ronen Steinke. Ronen recently went behind the scenes to encounter the unique world that is Scheveningen prison, where alleged war criminals spend years awaiting their judgement day at the various Hague tribunals. Ronen is a journalist whose work has focused on international criminal justice. He is also the author of The Politics of International Criminal Justice – German Perspectives from Nuremberg to The Hague (see my review here). This article was originally posted at Süddeutsche Zeitung and was translated by Patrick Wegner.
33 men, all of them ex-dictators, warlords, alleged mass murderers, under one roof. An exclusive visit to the war criminals prison of the United Nations in the Hague.
Some years ago, a joke born out of bitterness made its rounds among UN staff: all those expensive peace missions around the globe, the reintegration programmes for rebel soldiers, all the political ‘reconstruction’ efforts that in the end turn out to be naïve illusions of the West and huge letdowns – you could just as well forget about all of them. And buy a small tropical island instead, even with less money. On the tropical beaches of this island paradise you could serve cocktails to the worst warlords and agitators the world has seen, from dusk till dawn. And who knows, that might even be a better use of the money and a better service to humanity than funding all those unsuccessful programmes.
It is a cool morning at the Dutch beach. The salty winds are shaking the hot dog stands and ruffling the flags. Pensioners are strolling along the boulevard, holding hands. The beach area of Scheveningen is a wealthy suburb of The Hague. When the clouds disperse, sunrays dance over the sea like searchlights. The wind is still mild and blows landwards. But not even thousand steps from here it has to overcome 6 meter red brick walls, and does so with ease.
On foot you would take much longer to cover this distance, traversing two thick security perimeters and leaving behind all metal items to be scanned at the gate of the old prison of Scheveningen. You would have to cross several heavy doors, the next one is only opened after the previous door has been securely locked. Then you would cross a courtyard full of pine trees surrounded by rolls of all kinds of barbed wire. After a while you would find a single building deep within the prison complex, with another metal detector and even more security personnel, scanning everything. Only this time they are not wearing Dutch uniforms, but blue UN shirts.
Former Enemies live cell to cell. The doors are left open. In the evenings, they cook together
Three stories, surrounded by high walls, which are again surrounded by picturesque Dutch houses: a prison within a prison. But also something of an island. The few inmates that are kept here are allowed to spend twice as much time outdoors than normal prisoners in the regular prison system. They are also allowed to receive visitors much more often: up to seven full days a month. Common Dutch robbers or drug dealers, who are overlooking the courtyard from their neighbouring cells, can only dream of such visitation rights.
From the higher floors you can see the treetops and hear the seagulls. The wind from the sea is blowing through the building because many doors are left open. And if you have ever seen a German prison or holding cell, you will wonder where the dirt and the grafitis are: the walls are white, every corner brightly lit, the light-grey bricks match the light grey linoleum and in some areas you can see security cameras in a still pristine condition. A unique experiment is being carried out here, even though this is not the main intention of the owner but more of a side-effect. The 33 men who share this house used to be warmongers, warlords, and dictators, in some cases at the helm of directly opposed regimes. In this prison of international criminal justice they are living together, under surveillance of the United Nations that are operating various international criminal tribunals in the Hague, as well as the International Criminal Court that has also brought charges against some of them.
The United Nations are not very eager to allow journalist within these walls. Consequentially they have never – before this visit that is – allowed journalists a glimpse into these halls. Purportedly due to security reasons, and maybe also because seeing this place raises questions that are not easily answered. Questions concerning justice.
Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, has been here since June 2008. Until today he expresses perverse delight looking back at how he fooled his pursuers, dressed up as the miracle healer Dr. Dabic right in the middle of Belgrade. When he arrived at the prison, he could initially be seen taking a stroll in the courtyard. For everyone to see. The world had him back; this seemed to be his personal victory lap: Nordic walking in a tracksuit, in line with the casual dress code of the inmates. A trial lawyer who was present that day remembers: ‘He was number one, enjoying the cheers of his former generals.’
It must have been the moment of a lifetime for the small-town Serbian police officer Sredoje Lukic who is also imprisoned here for allegedly having committed massacres against the Muslim population at behest of his political leaders in Bosnia. All of a sudden his former President Karadzic was cooking with him. Side by side they were standing in front of the metal stove in the inmates’ leisure room, in front of an industry-sizedwaffle iron under a humongous kitchen hood that would put most Mc Donalds branches to shame.
During the visit Karadzic’s kitchen remains off limits, but we are able to see an identical kitchen no longer in use. It looks very well kept, like something that was taken very seriously.
‘Usually there is this signature sound when entering a prison’ says Klaus Hansen who worked in Danish prisons for 12 years before starting here. ‘It sounds like a strange machine. Keys, doors, male voices. You won’t find that here. It is just quiet.’ Hansen is a friendly Dane with a white beard and pony tail, one of the civilian specialists that protect the privacy of the inmates from the public. The residents of this house are hated and feared. But at the same time, and this might be the more serious issue, they are loved: by secret networks of former followers in the security apparatuses of their home countries. This is why Klaus Hansen will leads us through the building following a complicated, sinuous line. He is giving all the inhabited rooms a wide berth and showing only the empty cells.
Each inmate has a single cell. They are distributed along four hallways. Three hallways are filled with men from the former Yugoslavia, including two former Presidents who triggered a bloody uprising across the region with their hate speech. Allegedly triggered that is, since all inmates here are awaiting the verdict of their trials. In The Hague this can take a while. Seven years on average.
Then there is the fourth hallway, for men from Africa that are currently facing the International Criminal Court. Among them is another former President, who was ousted three years ago through a military intervention in Cote d’ivoire by French and UN troops. When Laurent Gbagbo was arrested, he was still wearing an undershirt.
Downstairs, in the entrance hall with dark tiling, where a conglomerate of old sofas provokes comparisons with German youth prisons, two elegantly dressed African ladies crossed our paths. Visitors on their way out. The inmates are only meters away, but you cannot see them.
The prison is supposed to deter war criminals, but for some it is a haven
This peculiar social experiment, that much is clear, is taking place in relatively propitious conditions: sure, it is narrow, the ceiling is low, and the gym in the first floor has only the size of half a basketball court. The different colorful markers for a variety of ball sports on the floor are squeezed into an absurd criss-cross. And the tiny windows are so high, that three men would have to stand on each other’s shoulders to look outside through the bars. With an average age of 62.9 years that idea is absurd of course. A staff member states that their main worry are heart problems. But still, there is a gym. Very well kept, including cardio equipment in a corner. You will not find that in many European prisons. Continue reading