Region faces challenges in prison overcrowding, amnesty

26/11/2012

By Katica Djurovic and Bedrana Kaletovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade and Sarajevo -- 26/11/12

Although several regional countries are using amnesty to relieve prison overcrowding, questions are being raised about prisoners' release.

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Serbia's new amnesty law will reduce sentences of about 1,100 prisoners. [AFP]

Aleksandar B, 26, from Lazarevac, was sentenced to six months in prison recently for being the responsible party in a fatal car accident. However, due to a lack of space in prisons in Serbia, his sentence was reduced to three months and he is on a waiting list of more than 4,000 to serve his time.

"I wish I could be done with this as soon as possible. I want to serve this sentence and go back to my life again," Aleksandar told SETimes.

Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture published a report in July on the condition of Serbian prisons. Overcrowding was stated as the main problem in Serbia.

Currently, there are around 11,500 inmates in Serbian prisons, but the state's facilities are designed to take about 7,000.

However, due to a new law on amnesty, which parliament passed on November 8th, about 1,100 prisoners will be released starting this week to open space for others on the waiting list.

The opposition harshly criticised the law, alleging that some notorious criminals would be released under its provisions.

"Amnestying the criminals because the government wants to save the money is a wrong move. This way we send the message of support to the criminals that no matter what they do they will be released soon or won't go to jail at all," Aleksandra Jerkov, a member of the League of the Social Democrats of Vojvodina, said.

Responding to opposition's criticism, the ministry of justice claims that the opposition wants to spread fear among citizens.

"Amnesty is [a] generally accepted principle applied by all modern legislation. The new law would affect only those sentenced to three to six months in prison, while those sentenced to 30 or 40 years or for organised crime would not be amnestied," Milica Vuckovic, spokesperson of the Serbian Ministry of Justice told SETimes.

According to the ministry, the law on amnesty is intended to reduce and/or mitigate sentences. The law is meant to be a prerequisite for the use of alternative criminal sanctions.

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Female inmates stand inside a cell in the women's prison in Pozarevac, Serbia. [AFP]

Under the new legislation, prisoners that are convicted and sentenced to three months in prison or less will have their sentences overturned; prison terms ranging from three to six months will be reduced by 50 percent; prisoners convicted of aggravated murder, murder and serious cases of robbery and aggravated robbery will have their sentences reduced by 10 percent and prisoners older than 70 will serve 25 percent less of their sentenced time.

The aim of the amnesty law is to lower the number of prisoners in the prison system and garner savings in the state budget. The savings for the country would be 6. 9 million euros, the ministry said.

"Passing this law [contributes] to the relief of prisons and jails, which would directly improve the living conditions of the inmates," Vuckovic said.

According to the justice ministry, the financial crisis limited the possiblities to start building new prison facilities. Instead, the state is focusing on recosntructing and expanding existing prisons.

Natasa Mrvic-Petrovic, a professor at the Union Law University in Belgrade and an expert in prison law, said the amnesty law is necessary for Serbia's prison reform, but it will not be a long-term solution to the overcrowing problem.

"What we need is different penal policy," Mrvic- Petrovic told SETimes.

Serbia is among the top countries in the Council of Europe that implement short-term sentences. Due to the lack of work release programmes for convicts, penalties are reduced.

Other countries in the region have similar problem.

According to the Federal Ministry of Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 932 convicts are awating the start of their sentences, because there is no room in the prisons.

Last year, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) President Zivko Budimir granted amnesty to 96 prisoners, including 36 murderers. But despite relieving overcrowding, the large numbers of freed convicts raise concerns over the efficiency of the amnesty institution in the country.

The ease that convicts can be awarded amnesty, and the fact that politicians do not need to give an explanation for their decisions to grant it, promotes violence and lawlessness in the community, according to some analysts.

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Conferring quick clemency for serious criminal convicts raises the question of repeated offenses. [AFP]

"We get the impression that authorities are on the side of the offender, and that these offenders may put an additional pressure and threaten honest people in the community," Enes Osmancevic, professor of communication at the University of Tuzla, told SETimes. "Unfortunately, this is a trend of the last 20 years and it threatens to be worse in the future," he said.

After an inmate has served one third of their sentence, they have the right to seek pardon every six months.

An appeal for clemency is submitted by the convict, his attorney, or the nearest relative of the prisoner to the BiH court, after which the FBiH president makes the final decision.

The country's amnesty-granting institutions are the FBiH president, Republika Srpska president, BiH ministry of justice commission, and the mayor of Brcko District -- as this district is the neutral, self-governing administrative unit in BiH.

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The amnesty-granting criteria from the institutions are generally unknown to the public. In most cases, the FBiH president makes a decision without seeking opinions from others, and without providing a public explanation.

Court judges can issue recommendations in response to an amnesty request, but their recommendations are not necessarily followed.

"Our professors always mention the example of Hazim Vikalo, a convicted high-ranking politician, who after receiving amnesty … continued an active political life," Melisa Jahic, law faculty student in Tuzla, told SETimes.

In October Vikalo ran, and lost, as candidate for the mayor of Gracanica, in northeastern BiH, representing the Party for Democratic Action. He was convicted of abuse of office in 2006, and sentenced to four months in prison. Borjana Kristo, then president of the FBiH, pardoned Vikalo, who never served a single day of his prison sentence.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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