Bosnian divide keeps criminals waiting for jail

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Bosnia’s failure to establish a coherent system of government more than a decade after its ethnic war has had some strange consequences — among them a dire lack of prison space for Sarajevo’s small-time criminals.

The Bosnian capital, located in the Muslim-Croat half of Bosnia, has space for just 100 low-risk prisoners, while twice that number wait — some for up to six years — to serve their sentences.

A few km away stands a prison that could accommodate some of them. But it lies just inside Bosnia’s Serb Republic, the other entity that emerged from the end of the war — and there is no agreement between the two halves on taking each other’s prisoners.

The shortage of space means that Amer Hamidovic, 22, waited two and a half years to start serving a seven-month sentence for dealing drugs.

“It was strange. I couldn’t plan anything in my life, I just had to wait,” he said, sitting in a common room where prisoners were watching the Olympics on television.

The long delays are among the many consequences that accompanied the division of Bosnia into a mostly Serbian half and a mostly Muslim and Croat half under the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. Each side runs separate institutions, including prisons.

“We can’t take any more people than is our capacity,” Alija Berberkic, the warden who oversees Sarajevo’s prisons, said in an interview.

“The only answer is to come up with a common solution to Bosnia’s problems. Why should we spend the money to build a new expensive system when we already have a working one just across the dividing line?”

The prison in question is on Sarajevo’s outskirts, and Berberkic said it had space. But it lies just inside the Serb part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska.

The Bosnian Serb prison officials declined to comment and region’s justice ministry officials were not available.


The most dangerous criminals in the Muslim-Croat region, such as murderers and rapists, are sent to a much larger prison outside Sarajevo.

But Berberkic said that about 200 people convicted in the city of lesser crimes are still living at home in the Sarajevo area, awaiting space in the city’s prisons. Only about 100 are actually jailed.

“It is dangerous, but we can’t do anything about it,’ said Ferid Niksic, the assistant to the warden. “But it’s not as though, if you just put away the 200 people, the situation on the streets would be ideal, without crime.”

Waiter Sasa Martinovic, 23, waited the longest time to serve his time: six years from the day he got into a fight until he began a 20-day sentence.

“They ordered me to pay 1,000 Bosnian marka (500 euros) but I couldn’t afford to pay.” He chose to go to prison instead.

Niksic said that no convict waiting to serve sentence has run away in recent years.

“I wouldn’t want to escape because I was not guilty,” said Zlatko Gojsilovic, an accountant who says his superiors fraudulently got him to sign a document laundering 1.75 million euros ($2.61 million).

“I waited five or six months to start my sentence but that was good because I had time to finish up some work before coming in.”

Senad Lihovac waited two months before beginning a 17-month sentence for killing someone in a traffic accident. He was barred from driving in the meantime.

The inmates in the Sarajevo prison, built a century ago under Austro-Hungarian rule, live in common rooms filled with bunk beds. Officials do not segregate them along ethnic lines, so Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs share the facilities.

“There are conflicts, but they happen on an individual basis rather than because of national identity,” said Niksic, the warden’s assistant.

How long might it take for the two halves of Bosnia to unify its prison system?

“Maybe 100 years,” Niksic quickly responded.

Warden Berberkic was more diplomatic: “It all depends on the politicians.”

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