, SCHEVENINGEN, Netherlands, Jul 6 – Deep in the heart of a Dutch prison a group of international detainees finish their African-inspired meal before settling in front of a television to watch the latest World Cup football match.
Welcome to another day at the red-bricked Building 4, Scheveningen prison complex — the cell block for those accused of committing the world’s worst crimes.
Three weeks ago Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba became one of the few to leave through the block’s heavy green door, after being acquitted of war crimes by judges at the International Criminal Court.
The Congolese warlord-turned-politician spent 10 years as the ICC’s “guest” at the detention unit, situated inside the Dutch prison in The Hague’s seaside suburb of Scheveningen, a stone’s throw from the North Sea.
“When a new detainee first arrives, we sit him down and have a chat. I tell him: ‘A — you’re safe here and B — you’ll be treated with respect,” says Paddy Craig, the weathered and grey-haired ICC chief custodial officer.
“But I also tell them we expect respect in return. We are open, but this is after all a detention centre,” adds Craig, a former Royal Marine with 27 years of policing experience.
He has a strict policy of not discussing individual prisoners and declined to answer questions relating directly to Bemba.
However, during a rare visit inside the unit, which still houses the likes of Ivorian ex-president Laurent Gbagbo and his right-hand man Charles Ble Goude, journalists gained a glimpse of life behind bars.
For the ICC’s remaining six detainees like African rebel warlords Bosco Ntaganda and Dominic Ongwen, the day starts at 7:00 am when cells are unlocked.
Cells are basic at 15-square metres: a single bed, open toilet, basin, a chair and a few cupboards make up the bulk of the furniture. Possessions include a razor, shaving cream, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a towel. But there is a television inside, and a desk for a computer although there is no internet access.
Inmates are responsible for keeping their cells and communal areas clean.
When not getting ready for a court appearance, the men can roam the wing, meet in its two communal areas or pump iron in its well-equipped gym.
Looking around it quickly becomes clear that cooking is a favourite past-time.
“Some are unbelievable bakers. Some days you cannot believe the smells that come from this area,” Craig says.
But diplomatically, he did not want to say who was the best chef.
Combined football teams
Inmates can also spend scheduled time outside in a fenced-off courtyard with an ageing, but functional tennis court, or play football in an adjacent gymnasium.
“Often the ICC’s detainees play against their counterparts of the now defunct ICTY (the Yugoslav war crimes court),” says Craig.
But overcrowding is not a problem.
Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic died in the centre while on trial in 2006.
And the ICTY’s numbers have been whittled down to two: wartime former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, so teams are often filled out by the 29-strong contingent of correctional officers.
The matches are the only time the detainees of the two courts meet, as they are otherwise kept on separate locked floors.
Inside two communal areas are a table-tennis table and table football set, an aquarium with a handful of goldfish, chess and other board games.
Although there are no restrictions on visits, the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims help with one to two visits a year if the detainee has no money, says Craig.
Inmates get 200 free minutes every month to phone loved ones and friends at home, using a list of 25 strictly vetted telephone numbers. All phone calls are recorded.
The unit also has “private rooms” for conjugal visits between spouses, usually lasting a few hours.
It’s clear that food plays an important part in the daily lives of the international detainees.
In a kitchen area, a larder stands packed with supplies — much attesting to the African origins of most men on trial. A cooking roster is pasted on a nearby fridge door.
“The detainees sometimes share their meals with warders. Chicken, garlic and peanut dishes are a favourite,” says Craig.
But as he himself has to remain impartial as the head of the ICC prison, he does not share meals.
Numerous tins of tomato-and-onion sauce, dried maize, cassava and packets of rice compete for space on the shelves of a kitchen that looks out onto the surrounding Dutch part of the prison.
Achingly close beyond, lie the wild and wind-swept sand dunes of Scheveningen.
In another courtyard outside, close to the tennis court, lies a vegetable garden where the prisoners tend their crops of abundant sunflowers, coriander and spinach.
Twice a day the inmates are locked in their cells when warders eat their lunch and supper at the prison’s canteen.
After supper, the detainees often settle in in front of the television.
“Watching the World Cup football is currently very popular,” says Craig, but now all the African teams have been eliminated, it’s not clear who they support.
At 8:30 pm cell doors are locked again, with lights out shortly afterwards.