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Yugoslavia: Serbian Prison Unrest Spreads

  • Jolyon Naegele

The prison unrest which started in Serbia on Sunday has now spread to two more jails. Prisoners are demanding improved conditions and are insisting an expected amnesty of some 800 Kosovar Albanian political inmates should also apply to Serbian prisoners. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from Prague that the unrest poses a stern political challenge to President Vojislav Kostunica.

Prague, 7 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Serbia's three main prisons: Sremska Mitrovica, Nis, and Pozarevac are in the hands of rebellious inmates, with the first fatality being reported after nearly 48 hours of unrest.

The uprisings represent an explosive challenge to plans by the fledgling government of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica to amnesty some 800 Kosovar Albanians, whom Serbian forces seized as hostages during NATO air strikes last year.

The inmates at the three prisons are demanding an end to poor treatment and the expansion of the proposed amnesty bill for Kosovar Albanian political prisoners in Serbia to include Serbian common criminals.

The unrest started in Sremska Mitrovica, 75 kilometers west of Belgrade, late Sunday before spreading east and south to Nis and Pozarevac.

At least four buildings at Pozarevac prison were on fire this afternoon. Prison warden Stipe Marusic says guards shot in the air to calm down the rioters. But inmates contacted by telephone say the guards shot at them, injuring several prisoners.

At Nis, a prisoner (Vasilije Kujovic) slipped off the roof of a building and suffered serious head injuries and later died in hospital. Several hundred riot police armed with submachine guns have since surrounded the prison.

Unrest at Sremska Mitrovica prison, where before the uprising some 1,300 inmates were incarcerated, including 50 foreigners and six prisoners on death row, resulted in three injuries. But Sremska Mitrovica was reported calm today.

Our correspondent in Sremska Mitrovica spoke with several prisoners, including one who says the inmates are demanding former prison warden Trifun Nivkovic be tried for torturing prisoners and forcing the prisoners to live in "impossible conditions."

"We also want an amnesty. Thirty-three percent are political prisoners and 33 percent are first-time offenders, so they should all be covered in an amnesty (crowd chanting)."

At Nis prison, some 300 Albanian prisoners declined an invitation by Serbian inmates to join the revolt. At Sremska Mitrovica, Albanians joined the uprising, but late last night police evacuated several busloads of ethnic Albanians from the prison.

Kosovar Albanian inmate Mehmet Shabani says Albanians joined the Sremska Mitrovica protest as equals with the Serbs.

"We have a common goal -- Serbs, Albanians, and the others -- we are all together. We fully support what our colleagues are demanding. We are political prisoners. There are 167 Albanians here. I don't think we are hurting anyone with our frustration. But even without this amnesty bill, we have expected more from this new government than the little it has offered up to now."

One of Serbia's three co-ministers of justice, Dragan Subasic, tells RFE/RL the Justice Ministry considers the prisoners' demands "fully justified," including the demand for extending amnesty to non-Albanians. Subasic is a member of Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition.

"Above all, it is clear these protests are the result of long years of bad and abnormal measures in this prison -- very bad -- the material conditions experienced by the prisoners who (nevertheless) maintained prison discipline. This constituted very bad treatment of condemned persons who don't even get health care."

Meanwhile, relatives of the prisoners have gathered outside the prisons awaiting news on their family members.

This mother waiting outside Sremska Mitrovica had this to say: "I'm interested about my son -- whether he is alive or hurt. I am a mother. I want to know. I visited him yesterday."

The prison revolts in Serbia have a recent historical parallel in Eastern Europe. Shortly after being inaugurated as the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia in late December 1989, Vaclav Havel issued a sweeping amnesty. Havel spent more than five years in Czechoslovak prisons as a dissident playwright and was convinced that with communism gone, many inmates should be given a second chance.

The release of all political prisoners was a key demand of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution and the communist authorities who had consistently maintained that there were no political prisoners finally released all those demanded by the opposition. Weeks before, Havel was elected by the largely communist parliament.

Havel's amnesty did not cover political prisoners but those who were jailed for non-violent crimes. The amnesty, however, provoked riots among more hardcore criminals not affected by the amnesty, who proceeded to trash and set several Czech and Slovak prisons ablaze. Many of the prisoners released under Havel's amnesty went back to crime and were soon behind bars again.

The amnesty permanently damaged Havel's reputation. More than a decade later it is still perceived by many Czechs and Slovaks as having been Havel's greatest mistake.