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News 21 Sep 15

Macedonians Urge Amnesty to Ease Jail Overcrowding

As hunger strikes spread in Macedonian prisons, protesters in Skopje demanded amnesties for less serious crimes to combat overcrowding and inhumane conditions in the country's jails.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

The main gate at Skopje's Idrizovo prison.

Families of prisoners and activists demanding an amnesty blocked traffic in front of parliament on Monday, demanding the scrapping or reduction of sentences for less serious offences.

They said they aimed to gather 10,000 signatures to submit an amnesty bill to that would pardon inmates convicted of lesser crimes who have served 40 per cent of their sentences.

The initiative for an amnesty has grown over the past few weeks after initially being voiced by relatives of prisoners who have been sentenced to several years in jail for trafficking refugees and migrants.

They insisted the sentences were absurd because a few months later, the government legalised the passage of migrants and now taxi drivers, bus companies and the railways are helping to transport them.

“My son is a taxi driver… sentenced for 'human and human organ trafficking' which is nonsense. He had picked up a family [of migrants] in Gevgelija [near the Greek border] and transported them to Skopje. He was sentenced to five years… Cases like this should be pardoned,” Verka Zlatanova, the mother of one prisoner, said at the protest.

The protest was organised in solidarity with prison inmates across the country who last week started a hunger strike with the same demand.

Media reports say that the strike has since spread to most penitentiaries in the country, including country’s largest, Idrizovo prison near Skopje, as well as those in Gevgelija, Strumica, Shtip, Prilep, Tetovo and other places.

“We expect that the government will take us seriously. Our demand is [amnesty after serving] 40 per cent [of sentence] or the scrapping of some criminal offences… We will not give up… 80 per cent of the prisoners are with us,” one prisoner from Idrizovo was cited telling Telma TV on Monday.

None of the large political parties has explicitly expressed support for the protesters’ demands so far.

But former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, now an MP and head of the small opposition Democratic Alliance, said that many court sentences are problematic and should be reviewed.

“Amnesties are carried out almost everywhere, in all countries, as a state act of pardon and the correction of injustice,” Trajanov said.

Trajanov argued that illegal surveillance tapes, which have been released by the opposition since February, have proved that the judiciary is not independent and so “many court rulings are now standing on thin ice and should be reviewed”.

For years, the Public Ombudsman’s reports have described conditions at Idrizovo as sub-standard. The prison has been criticised for bad infrastructure, overcrowding and for insufficient health protection as well as for housing many drug addicts who do not receive proper treatment.

The EU has also repeatedly warned Macedonia about the state of its jails, describing them as old, overcrowded and understaffed. The condition at Idrizovo has been highlighted as the most alarming because it should accommodate some 900 people buut currently holds more than double that number.

In the latest annual report on the Prison Administration’s work, its head, Lidija Gavrilovska, wrote that they had undertaken “significant activities to improve the re-socialisation process of inmates, improve accommodation capacities as well as build up the capacity of prison staff”.

The last time Macedonia carried out a widespread amnesty was after the brief armed conflict in 2001. Then it amnestied ethnic Albanian insurgents who had been fighting security forces before laying down arms in exchange for greater rights for the country’s Albanians.



“My son is a taxi driver… sentenced for 'human and human organ traficking' which is nonsence. He had picked up a family [of migrants] in Gevgelija [near the Greek border] and transported them to Skopje.He was sentenced to five years… Cases like this should be pardoned”, said at the protest, Verka Zlatanova, a mother of a prisoner.

The protest is being organized in solidarity with the prison inmates across the country that last week started a hunger strike with the same demand. Media report that the strike has since spread in most penitentiary institutions in the country, including country’s largest, Idrizovo prison near Skopje, as well as those in Gevgelija, Strumica, Shtip, Prilep, Tetovo and others.

“We expect that the government will take us seriously. Our demand is [amnesty after serving] 40 per cent [of sentence] or scrapping of some criminal offences… We will not give up… 80 per cent of the prisoners are with us” one prisoner from Idrizovo was cited as saying for Telma TV on Monday.

These demands sound reasonable to former Interior Minister, now MP and head of the small opposition Democratic Alliance, Pavle Trajanov who says that many court sentences are problematic and should be reviewed.

“Amnesties are carried out almost everywhere, in all the counters, as a state act of pardoning and correction of injustice” he said.

Trajanov argued that the illegal surveillance tapes, released by the opposition since February, have proven that the judiciary is not independent and thus “many court rulings [in high profile cases that involve several tens and even hundreds of defendants] are now standing on thin ice [are being problematized] and should be reviewed.”

For years, reports of the public ombudsman have described conditions in Idrizovo as sub-standard. They have criticized the prison for bad infrastructure, overcrowding and for insufficient health protection as well as for housing many drug addicts who did not receive proper treatment.

The EU has also warned Macedonia about the state of its jails repeatedly, describing them as old, overcrowded and understaffed. The condition in Idrizovo is marked as most alarming, as this facility, set for some 900 people currently holds more than double that number.

In the latest annual report on the Prison Administration’s work, its head, Lidija Gavrilovska, wrote that they had undertaken “significant activities to improve the re-socialization process of inmates, improve accommodation capacities as well as build up the capacity of prison staff”.

The last time Macedonia carried out a widespread amnesty was after the 2001 short lived armed conflict. Then it amnestied ethnic Albanian insurgents who have been fighting security forces before laying down arms in exchange for greater rights for the country’s Albanians.

Protesters and activists say they will keep protesting. Thus far, none of the large political parties has explicitly expressed support for their demand.

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