Kosovo prepares to house 300 inmates from Denmark, raising human rights concerns

By Fatos Bytyci and Louise Rasmussen

PASJAK, Kosovo/COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - In a jail in eastern Kosovo, plans are underway to remove all domestic inmates and open the space for foreign prisoners who will be airlifted from Denmark, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) away.

Denmark is expected to send 300 inmates to the Balkan country, a first for Kosovo and a move highly criticized by Danish human rights experts.

Kosovo's prison service will rebuild the Gjilan jail during the next two years to Danish standards before receiving the convicts from non-European Union countries, who were due to be deported from Denmark after their sentences.

The eight-year-old jail itself doesn't raise human rights concerns, but the decision to house inmates in Kosovo does, said Therese Rytter, legal director of Dignity, a Danish human rights organization.

"There have been credible allegations of abuse in the past," Rytter said. "That doesn't mean that it will happen (in Kosovo), but there is definitely an increased risk compared to if they had been in a Danish prison," she said.

The U.S. State Department in its 2023 country report said although Kosovo's prisons met some international standards, violence among prisoners, corruption and inadequate treatment for inmates with mental disabilities persisted.

The UN Committee against Torture said in a report from December 2023 that it was concerned about inmates' access to health care and family visits.

Kosovo's parliament approved the deal last Thursday, which Denmark, a rich Nordic country says will help it cope with overcrowded jails and a prison guard shortage.

In return, Kosovo, one of Europe's poorest countries, will receive 210 million euros ($228 million) over the next 10 years.

No individuals who are sentenced on terrorism charges or have life sentences will be transferred to Gjilan, according to the Danish justice ministry and Ismail Dibrani, the head of Kosovo prisons.

"Those individuals who will arrive are easily manageable from our system," Dibrani said.

The inmates' gender was not confirmed.

A Danish prison governor will co-manage the facility with a local director, while all guards will be local.

The Kosovar prison guards will receive training from Danish authorities to ensure treatment of inmates meet Danish and international human rights standards, the Danish justice ministry said.

But Danish human rights experts are not convinced.

"A two-month course does not change behavior," Rytter said.

Rinor Behluli who lives close to the prison in the village of Pasjak, said it doesn't matter to him where the prisoners come from.

"Whether they are from Denmark, England or elsewhere, they are jailed people," he said.

The first convicts are expected to be transferred between 21 and 25 months after prison reconstruction begins, which is expected within weeks, according to the Danish justice ministry.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Rod Nickel)