Hague Hilton: the jail that houses some of the world's most notorious warlords

In a neat seaside suburb of The Hague lies Scheveningen Prison, once used by German occupying forces to imprison resistance fighters…

In a neat seaside suburb of The Hague lies Scheveningen Prison, once used by German occupying forces to imprison resistance fighters and now home to suspected torturers, murderers and war criminals

THE CRIMES WITH WHICH its inmates are charged – genocide, mass murder, persecution, torture, rape, mutilation – are for most people too monstrous to contemplate, which is probably why nobody takes much notice of Scheveningen Prison in its neat seaside suburb of The Hague. When they do, they refer to it wryly as the Hague Hilton.

The Dutch are a phlegmatic people, which is just as well. The prison complex is surrounded by immaculately coiffed middle-class homes. Children play on the green outside its enormous castellated main gate.

The city’s International Zone, including the Irish Embassy, is just a few kilometres away. Despite the undesirable neighbours on remand, this is a pretty okay place to live.


And, of course, like any other remand prisoners, the Hague Hilton’s inmates are, after all, innocent until proved guilty. They await the verdict of a UN-backed judicial system lauded by its advocates as thorough, fair and independent while condemned by its critics as too expensive, too pro-western and, in terms of speed, positively glacial.

Those who are eventually convicted, as the former Liberian president Charles Taylor was, at the end of May – becoming the first former head of state to be sentenced by an international court since the Nuremberg Trials, in 1946 – serve their sentences abroad. If his appeal fails, Taylor, who is 64, will live out as much of his 50-year term as he survives in a UK jail.

In the meantime, though, the man described by the trial judge as responsible for “abetting some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history”, including sexual slavery and conscription of children under 15 who were forced to rape, murder and amputate limbs, continues to live quietly in The Hague.

LIKE THE BACKGROUNDS of its inmates, there is nothing normal about the United Nations Detention Unit at Scheveningen. It was used by German occupying forces during the second World War to imprison Dutch resistance fighters. Today it’s used by the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which convicted Taylor, to hold some of the world’s most notorious war-crimes suspects.

So in the same high-security facility as the former Liberian president you’ll find the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who is now 70, and his former political ally Radovan Karadzic. Both are facing charges of genocide in relation to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst single atrocity on European soil since the second World War, as well as in relation to the 44-month siege of Sarajevo.

A stone’s throw away is the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who the International Criminal Court sentenced to 14 years recently but who may yet appeal. And one of the most recent arrivals is the former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, who faces four charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, in the wake of disputed presidential elections in 2010.

These are just the recognisable names. There are dozens of others whose alleged crimes are no less appalling but whose faces and identities remain almost unknown to the wider world.

As you’d expect in the Netherlands, the jail that contains them is modern and the facilities excellent. Standard rooms are 15sq m in size and include a bed, a basin and toilet, satellite television – so that, perhaps ironically, they can keep up with news from their own countries – a radio, a coffee machine and a laptop, so they can work on their cases, though usually without an internet connection.

Inmates are locked in their cells from 9pm to 7.30am, when they are woken for breakfast. During the day they can use the library, work out in the gym, where a fitness instructor is on hand, have a massage, join occupational-therapy classes, including painting, gourmet cooking and guitar playing, take advantage of “spiritual guidance” or, for those with more worldly appetites, arrange some private time with a visitor in the “conjugal room”.

Meals are provided, but there’s also a prison shop, and detainees are allowed to order dishes that suit their cultural and dietary requirements.

One of the stories most frequently told about the detention unit is of a lawyer for Charles Taylor who passed on a complaint to the kitchens from the former president, saying that the menu on offer was “completely Eurocentric and not acceptable to the African palate”. There’s no record of the chef’s response.

ONE OF THE MOST remarkable aspects of the unit is that the war-crimes suspects are allowed to mix with men who were previously some of their bitterest enemies, particularly during the conflagration of ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, in the 1990s.

“We don’t separate prisoners on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or nationality, and we have never had ethnic, religious or national tensions,” says a UN spokesman. “People can request to be separated, but that has only happened when mixing with certain individuals might have been regarded as prejudicing evidence or interfering with legal proceedings.”

Ratko Mladic, for example, known at the height of his power as the Butcher of Bosnia, has been a resident for 14 months. After an initial period of weeks in an isolation cell he was allowed to mix with the 36 other war-crimes suspects waiting to be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, some of whom would not have hesitated to kill him in the past.

Nothing has happened. When not involved in his court case, Mladic spends his time reading newspapers, chatting to other prisoners and playing chess. Potentially sensitive subjects such as politics are out of bounds, and they stay that way.

Mladic and Karadzic pass each other in the corridors occasionally, but their cells are in different wings, so they don’t get the opportunity to chat. Karadzic’s lawyer has said his client would like to spend more time with his former ally, so he could share some advice on how to cope with life inside. But Mladic is learning, whether he likes it or not.

In the back of their minds from time to time is undoubtedly the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, who died of heart failure in his cell in Scheveningen in March 2006 after five years conducting his own defence against genocide and other charges.

Milosevic’s many Serbian supporters believe he was murdered. The tribunal denies any responsibility for his death. Its explanation is less cloak and dagger: he refused to take prescribed medicines and treated himself instead. One way or another, the home comforts of the Hague Hilton were the end of the road.