Near the Kosovar town of Gjilan, about 40 kilometers southeast of the Pristine capital, there is a jail with 200 inmates. In 2023 they will no longer be there: they will be relocated to other prisons in the country to turn Gjilan into a kind of Danish penitentiary island to which 300 foreign prisoners who are currently serving sentences in the Scandinavian country will be transferred. Thereafter, the administrators will be Danish and the laws of that country will govern. It is the result of an – unusual, but not unprecedented – pre-agreement signed this Monday by the authorities of both countries: one rich with a problem of prison saturation and a growing heavy hand with foreigners (Denmark) and another with hundreds of empty cells, one one of the poorest economies in Europe and which is only recognized as a state by around half of the UN member countries (Kosovo).
Under the pact, signed in Pristina by Kosovo Justice Minister Albulena Haxhiu and her Danish counterpart Nick Haekkerup, cells in Gjilan will be available for up to ten years. In return, Kosovo will receive 21 million annually for capital investments, mainly in the development of renewable energy.
🇽🇰 & 🇩🇰 are reaching a very important #agreement for leasing a correctional facility in 🇽🇰 for transferring 300 inmates from 🇩🇰!
– Albulena Haxhiu (@albulenahaxhiu_) December 16, 2021
None of those transferred will be Danish or high risk. They will all be foreigners sentenced to sentences that do not exceed 10 years and that, when they are purged in Kosovo, they will be deported to their respective countries. Only “non-dangerous prisoners,” specified the Kosovar ministry. There will be no convictions for acts of terrorism or war crimes or people with mental health problems. “We do not have the capacity to do so,” Haxhiu said in a parliamentary committee. The center’s staff will remain Kosovar.
The Danish minister described the agreement as “a historic step that will free up space in our prisons while reducing the workload of our prison officials”, but also as “a clear message to third-country nationals sentenced to prison. expulsion: your future is not in Denmark and, therefore, you should not purge your sentence there ”, as quoted in a statement.
“We have done our best to make sure it is within the rules. Exactly the same rules will apply as in prisons in Denmark, ”added Haekkerup. “They will continue to be able to receive visitors, although of course it will be difficult.” The measure is included within a package of reforms for the national prison system, endowed with 538 million euros, including the hiring of more prison guards and the construction of a new high-security prison, the minister said. that puts the number of places missing in the system in a thousand by 2025.
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In Kosovo, the government led by the left-wing nationalist Vetevendosje party, which obtained half of the votes in February’s elections (the highest percentage obtained in elections in the country), has reported the agreement in statements, press conferences and in Parliament, but the text is confidential and has been negotiated at least since last year without consulting civil society.
While waiting for the details to be revealed, Driat Cerabregu of the Kosovar Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, an NGO based in Pristina, sees a risk of worsening conditions for the rest of the prisoners in the country. “Knowing the general situation, it will lead to prison overcrowding and a deterioration in the situation of the prisoners,” he assures by telephone.
Kosovo has 1,642 inmates in 11 prisons that can hold up to 2,400, according to official figures. But, Cerabregu points out, there is a kind of dual penitentiary system, with three recent prisons such as Gjilan – built in the past decade based on Council of Europe standards – and others, the majority, dating from the sixties and seventies, when the territory was part of Yugoslavia. “In the new ones the situation is quite good, but in the others the cells are smaller and the prisoners have less space in general,” he adds. It is also there where there are more cases of self-harm, suicides and fights between inmates. “There are a few reports of mistreatment, but nothing widespread,” says Cerabregu, who questions the official numbers of empty cells and therefore fears that some of Gjilan’s inmates will end up in these older prisons. On Monday, when announcing the agreement, the Ministry of Justice specified that part of the money received will allow “increasing the quality and general infrastructure of the Kosovo Correctional Service.”
“The motivation for the agreement is completely economic,” says Eraldin Fazliu, host of Interaktiv-KTV, a political television program of the Koha Group that recently devoted a debate to the subject. Fazliu laments the “lack of transparency” of the pact and its potential impact on the rights of prisoners. “The idea of trading with prisoners sounds a bit medieval. I am surprised that a social democratic government has done it ”, he adds.
Unlike the humanitarian reservations to the pact of some Kosovar NGOs, some opposition deputies in the country have criticized the pact from another perspective. Hajdar Beqa, of the Democratic Party, expressed in Parliament his fear that the transfer of prisoners will hit some of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Kosovo. “They can be drug addicts or people who have been involved in prostitution,” he said.
The agreement has also drawn criticism in Denmark from activists and members of the opposition. Rasmus Kjeldalh, director of the Borns Vilkar child protection association, quipped on Twitter: “I suppose a good flight system to Kosovo will already be organized to guarantee the right of children to see their parents imprisoned.” Deputy Samira Nawa, from the Social Liberal Party, said on TV2 that “the Kosovo prison system has been criticized by international organizations for corruption, violence among prisoners and the poor preparation of some workers.” In 2020, a delegation from Danish prison services visited Kosovo to see prison conditions in person.
Another Scandinavian country, Norway, reached a similar agreement with the Netherlands years ago. In the summer of 2015, some 250 inmates in Norwegian prisons were transferred to Norgerhaven Prison, 150 kilometers northeast of Amsterdam. The contract was canceled at the end of 2018, after the Norwegian Ombudsman considered that it violated fundamental rights of the inmates.
Denmark’s incarceration rate of 5.8 million inhabitants is one of the lowest in the EU: 72 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Only Finland, Slovenia and the Netherlands have a lower proportion behind bars. However, since 2015 the number of prisoners in the country has increased from 3,400 to 4,200 (representing an occupancy rate above 100%, according to national statistics), while the number of prison officials has fallen from 2,500 to 2,000.
Last September, the Social Democratic government launched a legal reform to prevent those sentenced to life imprisonment from entering into romantic relationships in their first 10 years in prison. With this measure, the Executive of Mette Frederiksen reacted to a media case. A young woman had visited Peter Madsen, one of the best known criminals in the country, in prison and had fallen in love. Madsen was convicted in 2018 of murdering and dismembering Kim Wall, a journalist who was going to interview him in a homemade submarine built by him.
In recent years, Denmark has been tough on immigration and asylum by introducing multiple restrictions. Some have sparked outrage from human rights groups. Among them, a law that allows asylum seekers to be sent to countries outside the EU while their cases are being resolved; or the decision to revoke residence permits for Syrians on the grounds that the Damascus area is already safe. Last week, Inger Stojberg, Minister of Integration between 2015 and 2019, was sentenced to two months in unconditional prison for ordering the illegal separation of refugee couples.
An investment promise at the right time
What was signed on Monday was a letter of intent, that is, an outline of the pact that is usually known by its acronym in English, LOI (Letter of Intent). The final text will require the green light of both parliaments. It is scheduled to arrive in Kosovar early next year. There, the Government will need part of the opposition, since it requires the support of two thirds of the Chamber, as it is an international agreement.
The moment, yes, plays in your favor. A promise to invest in renewables scores points at a time of energy crisis. Kosovo is importing 40% of its energy these days – at a cost seven times higher than in the same period last year – and the energy distribution company announced last Wednesday two-hour power cuts for all households and for an indefinite period.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.