Bosnia and Herzegovina: Urgent reform needed to address ill-treatment in detention

A persistent culture of impunity among law enforcement and prison officials, as well as prosecutors, is fuelling ill-treatment in places of detention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said Amnesty International in a report launched today.

“Despite their obligations under international and domestic legislation, the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are failing to prevent ill-treatment which continues to be disturbingly common throughout the country. Beatings often go unreported and uninvestigated as victims are afraid of reprisals, while complaints are not acted upon,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.

The report, Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Better keep quiet”: ill-treatment by the police and in prisons, calls on the authorities to send a clear message, at all levels, that ill-treatment in prisons and by police officers will not be tolerated and will be punished.

The cycle of ill-treatment may start at the time of arrest and continue in the police station and, after sentencing, in prison. As a man arrested in Prijedor in Republika Srpska, one of the two entities comprising Bosnia and Herzegovina, said: “I was arrested, they brought me to the police station… They began with slaps and then they started beating me.”

A video made public in 2007 on an event that took place in October 2006 showed a man in uniform, allegedly a member of the Sarajevo Canton Police, repeatedly kicking and hitting a young man near a police car. The victim was forced to strip naked while the beating continued and later was left unconscious in a street in Sarajevo.

The lack of effective systes addressing cases of police misconduct is one of the main obstacles in fighting ill-treatment. According to existing provisions, prosecutors should initiate a criminal investigation whenever they suspect that a person may have been a victim of police ill-treatment. However, this rarely happens. Internal police oversight and complaints systems are in some cases ineffective and many complaints are not adequately addressed as a result of the unwillingness or inability by the police to “police itself”.

“Ongoing discussion about police reform must address the problem of lack of police accountability and its human rights consequences,” David Diaz-Jogeix said.

“The authorities must ensure that prosecutors initiate a prompt, independent, impartial and thorough investigation whenever there are grounds to suspect an act of torture or other ill-treatment by the police has taken place”.

Cases of ill-treatment and violence in prisons continue to be reported in both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina where the prison system is understaffed and some prisons are overcrowded, with poor material conditions. Amnesty International’s interviews with prisoners in Zenica Prison (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), for example, suggest a worrying pattern of ill-treatment of prisoners. Prison guards were reported to have beaten with truncheons prisoners held in isolation cells.

“There appears to be no system in place to ensure that prisoners can complain without fear of reprisal about ill-treatment, and in particular about ill-treatment by prison guards, and that the complaints are investigated,” David Diaz-Jogeix said.

It comes as no surprise that, according to official figures, no criminal proceedings were initiated against prison guards suspected of having ill-treated inmates in recent years. A culture of impunity and an atmosphere of intimidation make it unlikely that information about ill-treatment will reach anyone beyond the prison walls.

Amnesty International delegates presented their findings to the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 4th and 5th February 2008.

“We acknowledge the awareness of the authorities to address ill-treatment by law enforcement officials. At the same time we urge them to demonstrate political will by accelerating the implementation of the measures discussed,” David Diaz-Jogeix said.

Amnesty International urges the authorities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina  to urgently act upon their commitments to: • Improve the conditions of detention and treatment of inmates in the psychiatric unit of Zenica prison; • Appoint prison inspectors in order to improve accountability

In relation to the authorities of Republika Srpska, Amnesty International: • Welcomes the fact that the Minister of Justice is in the process of creating high security units within prisons; • Calls for the establishment of a mechanism that ensures inmates the right to complain in confidentiality to prison directors and to higher organs of authorities without fear of reprisal.

Amnesty International calls on the authorities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of Republika Srpska to introduce audiovisual recordings during interrogation in police stations.

“Openness, transparency and accountability throughout can only increase the public confidence in the authorities to combat continuing problems in this area,” David Diaz-Jogeix said.

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