THE HAGUE (Reuters) - When Ratko Mladic, nicknamed “the butcher of Bosnia,” arrives at the international war crimes detention center in the Hague, he will join a who’s who of accused genocidal dictators, warlords and mass murderers.
Set in a leafy suburb, the Scheveningen detention center is already home to the former Bosnian Serb military leader’s one-time political partner, Radovan Karadzic, currently on trial.
Other inmates include Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president charged with committing murder, rape and sexual slavery as he sought control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines or “blood diamonds,” and Thomas Lubanga, the Congo warlord charged with recruiting child soldiers.
Mladic, indicted by an international war crimes tribunal over the killing of 10,000 civilians during the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and for the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian War, was expected to arrive in The Hague later on Tuesday.
Scheveningen’s international complex, housing those awaiting trial for the International Criminal Court as well as the Yugoslav and Sierra Leone tribunals, is built next to an old prison where Dutch resistance fighters were imprisoned by the Nazis.
Compared to the prisons in the inmates’ home countries, the detention center seems relatively luxurious.
For a start, there’s the location. This is prime real estate, about 2 km (one mile) from the beach where top properties have views of rolling sand dunes and the whiff of sea spray.
Then there are the facilities: detainees are locked in their cells — single, not shared, and about 10 square meters in size — from 9 at night to 7.30 in the morning, where they can watch television, read or work on their cases.
Each cell in the ICC wing contains a bed, desk, bookshelves, a cupboard, toilet, hand basin and a telephone, although calls are placed by the centre’s staff. Detainees can work on their cases using computers but cannot access email or the internet.
During the day, they are free to mingle and instead of wearing prison uniforms can dress in their own clothes.
But in the Yugoslavia wing of the detention unit, politics and court cases are taboo topics of conversation, perhaps to stop the discussions from getting too heated.
“There are strict rules in the detention center — conversations about politics and cases are not allowed,” said Sefer Halilovic, a former Bosnian Muslim general who was suspected of murder of Croat civilians during 1992-95, but later acquitted by the tribunal.
Serbian media reported that despite their political differences, detainees who used to be on opposite sides in the 1992-95 war in the Balkans would gather for religious holidays and even exchange presents. “The war separated us and The Hague has put us together again,” wrote Halilovic in a book about his time in detention.
Others also noted the camaraderie that developed in the detention center.
According to former Macedonian interior minister Ljube Boskovski, who was also acquitted by the tribunal, when Ante Gotovina arrived in The Hague, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt because he had been arrested in the Canary Islands. “The problem was resolved when (former Serbian strongman) Slobodan Milosevic lent him a pullover,” Boskovski was quoted as saying. Gotovina was recently sentenced to 24 years for war crimes against Serbs in Croatia.
With political and legal discussions off-limits, small talk tends to center on food, family and health issues, such as the difficulty of getting access to the local dentist.
One of the most common complaints is the food: the vegetables served al dente are not to everyone’s taste, but detainees can request items from a shopping list and prepare their own food.
“The food is not what we are used to in the Balkans. Vegetables are not cooked well enough and portions are too small so we had to buy our food in the canteen,” Halilovic told Reuters. But his main complaint was the difficulty of getting a dentist appointment because there was only one dentist and a long waiting list.
Mladic, whose lawyers have argued that he is in poor health, is very likely to have access to good medical treatment, as the war crimes tribunal will not want another top war crimes suspect to die in detention in The Hague.
Slobodan Milosevic, who liked to listen to Celine Dion CDs in his cell, died in detention on March 11, 2006, a few months before a verdict in his four-year trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The center is located in a prison compound which houses a prison hospital and psychiatric clinic. Common criminals are housed there only if they are undergoing medical treatment, a Dutch Justice Ministry spokesman said.
Nerma Jelacic, a spokeswoman for the tribunal, said Mladic will be given a medical check-up when he arrives.
“The detainees can use prison medical facilities, but if they have severe problems we can use other prison hospitals or even civilian hospitals,” Jelacic said.
Despite all the facilities, Halilovic said, “It is still a prison.”
Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall