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News 21 Sep 17

Macedonia Plans Amnesty to Ease Pressure on Jails

Macedonia's new government plans an amnesty law to ease the overcrowding in the nation's prisons and improve their conditions - but the opposition has slated the proposal as corrupt.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev this month visited Skopje's Idrizovo prison. Photo: MIA

Macedonia's new centre-left government, which assumed office in May, plans to pardon all convicts serving jail sentences of less than six months – and cut the jail terms of prisoners serving for less than five years by 30 per cent.

A government spokesperson, Mile Bosnjakovski, said the main aim was to tackle "the overcrowding in prisons and the inhumane conditions inside them" as part of a wider reform of the judicial system.

The proposed one-time amnesty will not affect people serving life sentences, or people convicted of murder, electoral irregularities, sex offences or those found guilty of having worked against the country, been part of criminal organizations or having acted against international law.

The draft on Wednesday was put out for 20 days of public debate during which time experts and parties will have time to review it. The draft then will enter parliamentary procedure for adoption.

The government admits it is still not sure how many people can expect an early release from jail under the terms of the amnesty.

The main opposition VMRO DPMNE party condemned the proposal and drew a close connection between its timing and the October 15 local elections.

It said that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev hoped "to trick prisoners into voting for his [Social Democratic] party in the elections. This is called electoral corruption."

For over two years, a group of civic associations has been lobbying for an amnesty.

One of them, an association of families of prisoners serving sentences in Macedonia's largest jail, at Idrizovo, has complained of terrible conditions in the prison where it says unexplained deaths too often occur.

It has complained also of corruption, of the widespread use of drugs, about poor food and about a lack even of beds.

For some years, reports by Macedonia's Ombudsman and by the European Commission have supported most of these claims.

Other prisoner supporter groups claim that their relatives were convicted in politically driven cases under the former government, led by VMRO DPMNE, which held power for 11 years.

Skopje criminal law professor Osman Kadriu said that while the bill was a good idea, an amnesty alone will not fix the bad conditions in prisons, which need much more investment.

He said he hoped experts would be included during the public debate and that they will submit "concrete amendments, concerning what needs to be fixed".

The government said the Justice Ministry had previously consulted international legal experts in preparing the law.

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