By Thomas Verfuss
Ten members of the Association of Journalists at the International Criminal Court (AJICC) have gathered at the entrance of Scheveningen prison for the first ever media visit to the ICC detention centre, almost 20 years after the entry into force of the Rome Statute.
We have been told that we are not going to meet the detainees in person, as a matter of respect for their private living space. But we are going to see where and how they live and eat and sleep and we will be able to see an empty, uninhabited cell. The head of the prison, chief custody officer Paddy Craig from the UK, will tell us that “there are lots of false impressions about this place”.
But before we get in, we have to pass several strict security controls that take almost an hour (with passports, badges, lockers and metal detectors). Scheveningen is a centuries old fishermen’s village in the municipality of The Hague, and its main entrance reminds us of a medieval fortress. The Dutch prison has been there for a long time, and when the first contemporaneous international criminal court was set up in 1993, the registry of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) secured a building with international cells within the compound of the Dutch prison. So the ICTY detention unit is a prison within a prison. Over the years, detainees of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and the ICC came to join the ICTY detainees in “Building 4”, as the sign at the entrance of the international cells reads.
As we visit the prison within a prison, our passports are controlled twice: first at the main entrance of the Dutch prison, then we pass a couple of fences and doors that have to be unlocked for us, we walk through the courtyard of the Dutch prison and then, as a security guard quips, we have to pass through “customs” and show our passports again to enter the international cell block.
When we finally meet the warden, we realise that Craig seems to have a twofold main concern: on the one hand, he stressed that the ICC detention unit is a place where the detainees are treated with respect and according to “international standards”. On the other hand, he seems to be irritated about the fact that some people think the place is “a hotel or a palace”.
This is an old debate that has accompanied contemporaneous international criminal justice since its inception. When the UN Security Council set up the ICTY in 1993, it meant that the UN would for the first time have to run a prison. The first president of the ICTY, the late Prof Antonio Cassese of Italy, was not only a brilliant expert in international criminal law, but also a human rights lawyer. He told me during one of our first conversations that the UN, which often criticizes member states for human rights violations, has to set a good example and lead the way to a model detention centre that meets “the highest international standards”. And “il professore”, as his fellow Italians who worked at the ICTY called him, also said that he would ask the Red Cross to carry out independent inspections to check if the ICTY meets these high international standards.
These good intentions, with which the UN detention systems started, soon led to problems. Louise Arbour, who succeeded Richard Goldstone of South Africa as Prosecutor of ICTY and ICTR, told me that human rights groups from Rwanda had protested to her. Rape victims who had been infected with HIV during the genocide, could not afford the necessary medical treatment in Rwanda. On the other hand, the genocide suspects who were held by the UN in Arusha (Tanzania) got AIDS treatment according to Western standards, if necessary. For Arbour, this was a “dilemme insoluble” (a dilemma impossible to resolve).
On the one hand, she understood that the Rwandan victims perceived injustice. On the other hand, the UN could not make it not to hold its detainees according to international standards, thus with adequate medical care.
What we see in the ICC detention unit, is not a hotel or a palace. The detainees live in simple cells, with a bed, bookshelves, toilet and washbasin, absolutely correct places according to international standards, but there is no luxury. It is not unlike the simple hostels where shoestring or student travellers who cannot afford a good hotel stay.
The detainees have two community rooms where they can cook together or sit and watch TV or play chess. They have a gym where they can play soccer or exercise with the rowing machine, and there is a courtyard where they can get fresh air, exercise and grow their own vegetables. Craig encourages the detainees to go out there to stay in good health.
Chief custody officer Craig talks to detainees that have newly arrived. He tells them that they will be treated with respect by the ICC detention unit. He tells them that in exchange, he expects them to respect each other and his staff.
The ICC detention unit, which currently has six detainees (has been at a maximum of 14 at a given moment when there were also detained witnesses), is run by 34 staff members. Five work for the administration, like Craig. 29 custody officers work in shifts to ensure the security in the detention unit and the wellbeing of the inmates. They have been seconded by the Dutch prison service. (The ICC pays about 2.5 million euros each year to the host state for all the “prison services”.)
In the recruitment phase, they have to pass “enhanced skill tests” to check if they are fit to pass from the Dutch prison system to the special environment of the detention centre of an international court.
First of all, staff working in an international environment have to speak foreign languages. French and English are the working languages of the ICC. Craig also has custody officers who speak Arabic (currently, there are two Malian detainees). Language skills in Spanish and German are also available, but not needed for the moment.
Those language skills of the security guards should be sufficient for normal daily life. More accuracy is needed if a detainee has a medical problem. Then Craig asks for the assistance of court interpreters to make sure that the detainee’s complaints are well understood and the “good correct terminology” is used. Detainees can get the assistance of a doctor or a nurse in the detention unit and, if need be, be transported to a Dutch hospital for surgery or other more specialized treatment.
When you are locked up, contact with the outside world can be essential for your psychological wellbeing. Currently all ICC detainees are African, held in another continent that is not their country of origin. They can use the telephone for 200 minutes (nearly three-and-a-half hours) per month with family and friends for free: those phone calls are paid for by the ICC. If they want to speak longer, they have to pay for it themselves. If they have no money for that, they can earn some by working, like doing cleaning jobs in the detention unit. But as someone said: the 200 minutes seem sufficient, as there are couples who live together in the same house and talk to each other less than 200 minutes per month.
During their free 200 minutes, the detainees cannot talk to just anyone. The ICC has had very serious problems about witness intimidation—that is in fact what “killed” the Kenya cases. That is why the ICC seeks to avoid a situation where detainees give “instructions” for witness intimidation to accomplices at home. The 200 minutes are meant to maintain the link with family and friends. That is why the detainees can indicate up to 25 phone numbers they wish to call regularly. The ICC will then do its best to check if it is really the number of the wife or a cousin or a friend before permission to call is granted.
Those phone calls are not immediately listened into, but recorded until the end of the case. So if an issue of witness manipulation arises, like for example in the Jean-Pierre Bemba case, those recordings can be listened to later and serve as evidence in contempt proceedings.
Apart from the 200 free family/friends minutes, the detainees can additionally telephone for free with their lawyers. Those conversations are not listened to or recorded as a matter of attorney-client privilege. The detainees can also exchange information with their legal teams via computer, through a secure connection which is not monitored by the ICC. Computers the detainees have in their cells do not have Internet access for security reasons, to reduce the risk of witness intimidation.
No Internet means no Skype calls, just phone calls. The detainees can make those phone calls in the privacy of their cells. But still, they of course want to see their wives and children in person from time to time. That can be difficult, as the detainees are locked up in The Hague and their families will typically live in Africa and often not be able to afford a trip to Holland. That is why the states parties to the Rome Statute created a Trust Fund for Family Visits, next to the much more widely known Trust Fund for Victims.
There have been moments when the Trust Fund for Family Visits was empty. The ICC trust funds are not part of the regular ICC budget, but financed on a case by case basis through voluntary donations from states. Diplomats based at embassies in The Hague have told me that it is much easier to convince their capitals to send some money for the trust fund for victims than to send money for the trust fund for family visits. Politicians are said to be afraid to be seen to donate money “for those war criminals”. Defence lawyers have told me that the presumption of innocence seems to be weaker at international courts than in national systems, maybe because of the scale or gravity of the crimes or because the suspects are well known to the general public through press reports in which they have been described in terms like “the Butcher of the Balkans”.
Even well-educated people, who should know better, are at odds with the principle of presumption of innocence at international courts. When the then Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands visited the ICTY and had an informal talk with one of the defence lawyers about the suspects, she said: “But if they are here, there must be something they have done.”
Craig says that once the suspects have been convicted, they won’t easily get help from the Trust Fund for Family Visits. Journalists For Justice notes however that the right to a family life is a human right that exists and remains independently from the question of guilt or innocence. Apart from that, it is a human right not only of the suspect/convict, but also of the children who want to see their father (or mother) from time to time—innocent kids where the question of guilt does not apply.
Once the money has been found for a family trip to The Hague, the suspect can be met in all intimacy. The ICC has “an area for private conjugal visits” where Congolese war crimes convict Germain Katanga fathered his daughter Caroline, named after his Dutch defence lawyer Dr Caroline Buisman.
Craig wants the ICC detention centre to be humane not only as far as sweet love is concerned. The detainees are free to move around within for a substantial part of the day. They are locked in their cells during the night, but doors are opened at 7 am because some have to get “fed and dressed” because they have to be transported in time to the ICC building 1.5 kilometres or so in the direction of the city centre of The Hague for a court hearing. (ICC trials are conducted with the accused always present, with the notable and much litigated exception of the William Ruto case.)
For those detainees who have no “obligations” in court, the cell doors also open at 7am, but Craig allows them to “stay in bed or in their room” if they so wish. But the detention unit also offers facilities for more suitable use of the detainee’s time: they can, for example, work on their computer skills. And Dominic Ongwen who only spoke Acholi when he arrived in The Hague learnt English in the detention unit. (Craig stressed that as a matter of respect for privacy he would not name any individual detainee during his encounter with the press. The only inmate he named was Charles Taylor, who was not charged by the ICC, but by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and was in the ICC detention unit as a “guest”, which is a fact of common knowledge. So all the information about other named individual detainees in this article is from other sources.)
Detainees can borrow books from the library and watch television in the community rooms.
TV sets are tuned to programmes in French, English and Arabic, taking into account the nationality of the detainees (currently Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). It is only free channels available via satellite, the ICC does not spend money on pay TV.
The detainees are locked up again for an hour at noon when the guards have lunch and at 5 pm when the guards have tea. After 6 pm the detainees can move freely again until 8.30 when they are locked up for the night.
Another very sensitive aspect of the humane prison regime of international courts is food. As one defence lawyer once told me: “When you are in detention, food becomes more important. You are not free to walk where you want, go to restaurants or concerts or other distractions. The international courts’ detainees are held in Scheveningen [the most famous Dutch seaside resort] for years, but never allowed to go to the beach. No sex whenever you like, as in normal happy marital life in freedom. Then the meals become a moment of the day that you look forward to.”
So is the case for every prison. An additional problem for the international courts in The Hague is having the seat in The Netherlands. There are French restaurants all over the world, Italian restaurants in all continents, but a Dutch restaurant abroad is unheard of. This is not a coincidence, but for a reason (though I appreciate bitterballen and herring, but you can’t live on that on a daily basis).
The Dutch tend to prepare their food without imagination (often every day a small piece of meat with some vegetables and the eternal boiled potatoes) and won’t use all the wonderful herbs and spices available to add some taste, but just use salt and pepper.
The problem is exacerbated when Dutch food is prepared in a quasi-industrial manner for a large number of people, like in the canteen of a company, a hospital or a prison.
Already at the ICTY, the detainees from the Balkans protested about the tasteless Dutch food provided for free by the tribunal and preferred to cook for themselves, with ingredients they had to buy themselves.
At the ICC, with currently only African detainees, the cultural gap is even bigger. The detainees are provided with free Dutch prison meals that can be warmed in a microwave, but many prefer to cook themselvesâ€Š—â€Šand together with the other detainees. Craig has found contractors in The Netherlands where he can get the necessary ingredients for African cooking. The detainees can chose from a list of ingredients to be paid for, which will then be delivered after a few days.
Craig has noted the good smell of garlic and other spicy ingredients that comes from the kitchen when the detainees cook together.
When the AJICC delegation left the detention unit, many of us were left with the impression of a “correct” detention unit where lots of effort is put into running it humanely and safely. It is no hotel—none of us spontaneously volunteered to spend his or her vacation there. But someone also said: Maybe some war crimes victim living in extreme poverty in the Central-African Republic would dream of having such a place to live.