While it may take year before a state prison is in place in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the country must take urgent steps to deal with the shortcomings in its current detention system, High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling said Friday (June 1st).
His call came a week after the escape of former Bosnian Serb soldier Radovan Stankovic from a prison in the eastern town of Foca, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for the enslavement, torture, imprisonment and rape of non-Serb civilians during the 1992-1995 conflict in BiH.
Stankovic escaped on May 25th, while being taken for dental treatment at a local hospital. Shunning orders relevant to cases of this type, the nine prison guards who were escorting him didn’t shoot at him, or at the car in which he fled. The vehicle was later found near the Serbian border with Montenegro, prompting suspicions he might have found shelter in either country.
The fugitive was the first war criminal indicted by the UN tribunal to be transferred for trial in BiH. The tribunal’s president has already sent a letter to the BiH justice minister, requesting detailed information about the incident, in order to assess its potential impact on any future referrals of cases to domestic courts.
Stankovic’s escape highlights “the inadequacies of the overstretched and underfunded prison systems in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the urgent need for proper co-ordination among the country’s law-enforcement and judicial agencies”, Schwarz-Schilling wrote in his weekly newspaper column on Friday.
The top international envoy also criticised the authorities for what he described as “a scandalous degree of confusion” following the convict’s escape. “Police roadblocks were thrown up after it is reasonable to believe Stankovic had already been spirited out of the area, and it took five days for an international arrest warrant to be issued,” he wrote.
In the wake of the war criminal’s well-planned escape, all nine prison guards in his escort were suspended and now face criminal charges, while the head of the Foca penitentiary, Aleksandar Cicmil, was dismissed. Welcoming those steps as a “good start”, Schwarz-Schilling stressed the need for more far-reaching measures.
To begin with, the envoy argued, BiH should change the current system of choosing prisons based on ethnic origin. Currently, Bosnian Serbs are sent to prisons in Republika Srpska, while Croats go to jails in Herzegovina and Bosniaks to ones in central Bosnia.
“The issue is about security, not ethnicity,” he argued. “The solution is not to make substandard prisons ethnically based; it is to raise the standards of the prison service. Stankovic would not have been able to escape if the Foca prison were properly run,” he wrote.
Warning that the fugitive could again commit the crimes he was found guilty of, the high representative said the priority now was to catch him and then take quick action to deal with the failures that allowed this “fiasco” to happen.
Hours after Schwarz-Schilling’s article was published in the Bosnian dailies Dnevni avaz, Nezavisne novine and Vecernji list, BiH’s State Investigation and Protection Agency said three people had been arrested in Foca on suspicion of having helped Stankovic escape from jail.
Other possible accomplices were also being investigated, the agency said, adding that it was also working in co-operation with neighbouring countries’ authorities in a bid to locate the fugitive.