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A Model Prison For Those Accused Of The Most Heinous Crimes

Behind the high walls of a Dutch penitentiary, a handful of accused war criminals are housed in a one-of-a-kind prison that aims to embody the ideals of justice.

Cell at the Hague prison
Cell at the Hague prison
Adrien Jaulmes

THE HAGUE — For a long time, a dictator's or warlord's career tended to end in exile or violent death. International justice has added another option to closing the reign of a tyrant. For 22 years, dozens accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have found themselves on the banks of the North Sea, waiting for and living through their trials from behind the walls of a new kind of prison, created inside a Dutch penitentiary.

In the residential Scheveningen district of the Hague, the Haaglanden penitentiary may appear as just another building. Neighboring houses are built along its brick walls, cyclists pass without even looking at the old entrance, a portal with crenelated towers like that of a movie set. Now almost empty, this penitentiary, once the largest in the Netherlands, still shelters certain prisoners. Since 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and, since 2002, those of the International Criminal Court, have been incarcerated in a specially constructed building in the compound.

Under strict supervision, they enjoy considerably more comfortable living conditions than would be found in a normal prison. Modern individual cells, a telephone, computer, gym, fireplace and kitchen have fed criticisms of a "five-star hotel" and have earned the prison the nickname "Hilton of the Hague."

We are trying to make the institution as international as possible.

In reality, the detention center in Scheveningen is a high-security prison. Its function is to embody international justice: modern, civilized, respectful of human rights, but sometimes also a bit hypocritical and capable of cold brutality. Marc Dubuisson, Director of Court Support Services, is responsible for the prison's operations. He responds to criticism by reminding critics of its principles. "Prisoners are accused awaiting trial, and are therefore presumed innocent, which is not always well understood outside: They have rights that they will no longer have once condemned."

The gate to the Scheveningen Prison — Photo: Christopher A. Dominic

In fact, the prison does not punish at all. Detainees at the Hague are kept there only while awaiting trial or during the trial itself, which may last several years. The convicts are transferred to a prison in a state willing to accept them. "Meanwhile, we are doing everything to make their lives easier and make their detention tolerable," says Dubuisson.

Computers, he says, are not connected to the Internet. They allow defendants to communicate with lawyers and have access to their files, some of which have hundreds of thousands of pages. Defendants also are given language lessons. "Most of them are francophones, but they are given English lessons so that they can follow their case more easily. They can also take courses in computer science, painting, music, and may practice the religion of their choice."

This is a particular prison because of the particular inmates.

In practice, the detention center is divided into two parts: the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. The accused currently detained by the ICC are all from the African continent: Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Ivory Coast, and Charles Blé-Goudé, its former Minister of Youth and Sports; Bosco Ntaganda, leader of the Congolese militia, accused of extra-judicial killings in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president and Congolese warlord; Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Malian jihadist, and Dominic Ongwen, kidnapped by guerrillas of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda before becoming one of its leaders. There is frequent criticism of a somewhat unevenly distributed international justice system.

In fact, for the last few years, after most of the accused from the former Yugoslavia had already been tried, the defendants have been nearly all African, contained in a European prison. "We are trying to make the institution as international as possible," says Dubuisson. "The prison director is Irish, and he has assistants of Italian, Congolese and Tanzanian nationality. We want to avoid black inmates guarded by whites. Our guards are recruited differently from conventional prisons. We recruit women, different ethnic backgrounds, and people who speak foreign languages."

Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Ivory Coast, is among the accused currently detained by the ICC — Photo: Clara Sanchiz

Cultural particularities are a permanent concern to the center, which aims to supply prisoners from different countries food that matches their respective local diets, though this can incur high costs. Another difficulty is giving the prisoners the ability to contact their families. "We try to maintain links with the outside world as much as possible," said Fadi el-Abdallah, an ICC spokesman. "It is a right, especially for children, who should not be held accountable for the crimes their parents have committed. The prisoner should be able to receive anyone he wants, except journalists." But even this measure encounters unforeseen difficulties. These visits should not be used to relay orders, including the use of pressure on witnesses.

Still Dubuisson says the prison aims to "respect human rights 300% ... This is a particular prison because of the particular inmates. We do not have "small problems," no assaults of guards, no drugs. We have people with a certain level of education, they are not small-time offenders. I gather them regularly around a table to discuss the problems of everyday life."

A former Belgian court clerk, Dubuisson first joined the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today he heads the Directorate of Judicial Support Services and is responsible for everything from the detention of the accused and the participation of the victims, to language interpretation and administration. He personally travels to the countries from which the accused are extradited to ensure that their care is carried out according to the rules.

The "Hilton of the Hague"

His intention is to make the Hague Detention Center an exemplary prison, "an example in detention."

"It's sometimes difficult," he said. "There is no problem finding money for victim compensation funds or bringing witnesses to the Hague. On the other hand, no one wants to pay for the families of the defendants. But I wanted it to be a right, not so much for the accused, but at least to respect the rights of the children to see their parents."

There was also the problem of "conjugal visits," which are permitted. "But we had to adapt to polygamy. An inmate can bring all his wives, but can't have more visits than a monogamist."

The ICC is also concerned that the Dutch authorities may want to close the Scheveningen prison: This vast, nearly empty area on the seashore is evidently of real property value. The decision has been postponed for now, partly because of the history of the prison, in which thousands of Dutch resistance fighters were incarcerated during World War II. The other reason is to keep the ICC active. Investigations into war crimes in South Ossetia and the Central African Republic are underway. More suspected war criminals may arrive from different parts of the world, but with the same rights to be protected.

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