Accused of War Crimes, and Living With Perks

A standard cell in the detention unit of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague, the Netherlands.

Source: The New York Times Europe

Published: June 3, 2010THE HAGUE — Since the days after World War II when people accused as Nazi criminals awaited their fates in the grimness of Nuremberg Prison, reformers have dramatically reshaped the standards under which suspects accused of the vilest war crimes are being held.

The communal area of the detention unit of the International Criminal Court.

Beyond the brick towers of a Dutch prison just east of here is a compound where former Congolese warlords, Serbian militia leaders and a former Liberian president accused of instigating murder, rape and enslavement are confined in two detention centers with private cells stocked like college dormitories, with wooden bookcases, television sets and personal computers. Among the other amenities are a gym, a trainer, a spiritual room and a common kitchen where some former enemies trade recipes and dine on cevapi, or Balkan meatballs.

Three warlords whose cases are before the International Criminal Court are also receiving free legal aid at a monthly cost of about €35,000, or $43,000. They are classified as indigent, one of them despite assets that include €500,000 in investments, €150,000 in savings, €300,000 in paintings and jewelry, three automobiles and four properties.

But an additional benefit — travel subsidies of tens of thousands of euros for family visits from distant African countries — is stirring an emotional debate among the court’s donor nations about whether the entitlements at the cluster of international courts meeting here have reached their limits.

Each court was intended, in part, to provide a model of humane, civilized detention that contrasts starkly with the horrific nature of the crimes the inmates are accused of. But how much is too much?

A group including France, Italy and smaller states is arguing that the nations financing the courts should not be covering benefits that they do not provide in their own prisons — and do not want to. What precedent might be set, they ask, if they contribute to these provisions here?

“We’re not treating them as equals to the rest of detainees in national prisons,” said Francisco José Aguilar Urbina, the Costa Rican ambassador to the Netherlands. “A guy who steals a chicken to feed his family will not be paid by the states for family visits.”

The visits make up a small part of the budget of the International Criminal Court, which authorized the travel subsidies and spends about €102 million yearly for court costs, staff and investigators along with housing and prosecuting four men. But the dispute is scratching at bigger concerns about costly legal processes that have dragged on, yielded no convictions and put a lot of focus on the benefits at the detention facilities, which some critics mock as the Hague Hilton.

“Behind this issue is a tug of war,” said William Schabas, director of the Irish Center for Human Rights in Galway, Ireland — one between the court’s judges, who have generally supported broad prisoner rights, and many of the countries that are paying the bills. “They are wondering what they are getting for their money. This is a court that has existed for seven years and hasn’t finished one trial.”

Diplomats from more than 100 nations are gathered in Kampala, Uganda, to take stock of the court, though the dispute over family travel is moving toward a resolution this autumn. The court was created almost eight years ago as a permanent tribunal to prosecute genocide and war crimes. Its 12-cell detention center houses five prisoners: four from Congo and Charles G. Taylor, the deposed president of Liberia, who has two cells, one where he lives and one where he keeps his documents.

They share the gym with 36 defendants, including the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who are before a sister court dealing exclusively with Balkan war crimes and who are housed separately. That court does not provide travel benefits, but many of the prisoners’ home nations do, albeit far more modestly than the International Criminal Court.

Defending the International Criminal Court’s policy, Marc Dubuisson, its director of court services, said: “I’m not here to judge whether a person is worse than another. We have an obligation to show the world what is good management. Why would you want to sentence the children not to see their own parent?”

Thanks to conjugal visits, several detainees became new fathers, including a Serbian general and Mr. Taylor, 62, whose baby girl was born in February.

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