Vestre Faengsel, the Western Prison, in Copenhagen is a Victorian age prison used (or so it is intended) as detention centre. However, due to the often slow processing of charges (or so it was at the time) a large number of detainees (mainly substance addicts) serve their whole sentence here as the final sentence often fits the the time already spent on remand. The statistics at the time also told that only around one third of people held in this institution finally were convicted. If nothing else, this should give meaning to the old saying “innocent until proven guilty”. At the Western Prison the opposite of that was the rule. Here anybody would be seen as “guilty until proven innocent” and was treated as such. This also was the case for refugees from the ongoing Iran-Iraq war/mass-slaughter. Saddam Hussein’s deserters were seen as traitors – as Mr Hussain at the time was on ‘our’ (the western world’s) side – and the Ayatholla’s as – interesting enough – supporters of the one regime they had fled…..
I worked in this environment for two years in the years 1986-88. Together with a colleague I challenged the system. First with this article in Politiken:
clic on the images and read.
that was welcomed by many also the nursing staff and became a daily theme on one of the television news channels. Thereafter came this in Det Fri Aktuelt (social democratic daily which is now closed):
and then, after a heavily critised (WE ended up as the targets) comment in the internal prison journal of a prison guard’s glorification of violence,
Finally this in Amnesty Nyt, as Danish Amnesty’s journal was called at the time.
English translation of part of it (not the introduction):
We had left shortly before the publication, well aware of the dangers. This article led to a national debate in all media. It led to Denmark being listed in Amnesty International’s international annual report on countries accused of human rights offences. It also led to a trial (considered political. Amnesty International in London sent an observer). The Union of prison officers in Denmark sued us for libel and where fervently supported by the Minister of Justice (and his followers druing the time that followed). The following examples (I have scanned a few of the articles which delt with the case at the time if somebody would like to read. Sorry, most of it in Danish only, but there are some translations below).
yes, leading clergy members of Amnesty left in protest. They didn’t like their country to be criticised. So much for Christian brotherhood…. “It was only about deserters, traitors of their fatherlands… What’s the fuss?”
But the journalist (from all the political spectrum) were behind us all the way:
“Denmark Deserves Amnesty’s Criticism”
“Refugees out of Prisons” “Ministry of Justice bows the Neck to Amnesty”
But often I had to look into my notes I had saved. An example of that here. As all family, colleagues and friends – apart from my (first) very supportive wife at home – all withdraw and never mentioned the case in my presence, it was increasingly difficult to remain confident that I had done what was right. I felt guilty even when knowing that there had been no other way. It can never be right to close one’s eyes to injustice and illtreatment of our fellow human beings even if it in the end will cost you all. I never understood what wrong I had done, why they met me with silence. For a couple of years it was all in TV, radio and the newspapers, but in my daily ambience the case “didn’t exist”. And the nurses and doctors at the prison turned against us:
but, as said, we were supported by all media, radio, TV, magazines and daily papers – no matter if red, blue or yellow.
and the cartonists. “Hotel Behind Bars”: a re-designed Danish flag welcomes the refugees.
Or here: “Disgrace”
The successor as Minister of Justice, Hans Engell: “Then you should see what they do in other countries.”
“Room service. ‘Free accomodation and food for unlimited time and all the exercise we can offer. What in hell are they complaining about?'” Bo Bojesen’s, the star of Danish cartoonists, contribution in Politiken.
At the time the state railways had problems with their trains. Her, in a fictive museum, one that has broken down is exhibited besides Amnesty’s Black Report.
Another Minister of Justice, Erik Ninn-Hansen: “Warm Welcome ‘Alright, you claim you have been tortured, try this a couple of monts.'”
“Cannot understand that; we just chatted friendly with Hassan.”
It went to court.
In court: “We didn’t understand his nigger-language”
in Amnesty there were also turn coats. Only London stood behind us. The Danes came back after we won in court,. Before that they were on the fence. So much for standing up for political cases.
“Behind the Walls of Silence”
“We beat the prisoners because we are bored” (ex-guard)
Example from the text: “a prisoner is strip searched and a female officer ‘happens to turn up’. Her comment: ‘ Not much you can do with that one.’ Sexual harrasment is popular. Have we heard that before?
Pay-back for being open: The Prison authorities: We report him to the police’
First stripped and then beaten up. British man tells his story from Western Prison:
“Stripped naked and then beaten up”
We are awarded by the ‘Friends of Refugees Association’ as this year’s ‘friends.
and with an award from an association of human right lawyers
The judge was praised in the media for her courage. We were accused under five points. It was accepted that sever maltreatment occurs but we were sentenced to a symbolic fine for one claim: that a refugee had been beaten up so severely that he had to be admitted to the prison hospital. This man was a witness at the trial, he told it all how he had been beaten up and how they had smeared him, a Iranian deserter, with the ‘fucking Ayatollah’ (the one he had fled…). He could hardly get out of bed after being admitted to the prison hospital. This was the sole reason for his admittance. It was all in the medical files. Two days after he was released to the care of the Red Cross. Imediately after arriving to them a nurse rang the prison chief doctor and asked for an explanation as his whole face was swollen and he had bruises all over the body and could only walk with difficulties. Nothing more came out of that and for saying in our article that ‘anybody could see that this man had been beaten up’ we were given a symbolic fine and the prison officers and their union could save face – after all we had been sentenced for saying that. Unbelievable, despite all documentation, despite the man giving evidence in court, we were sentencedd on the ground that we could ‘not present evidence’. This was the verdict of this brave judge…. Yes, she was still brarve, she could have sent us down for it all. In a way she stood up against the prison officers union, their specialist lawyers, and not least the ministry of Justice itself. Only after I years later told my wife Josephine this story and heard her reaction, I realised how much injustice I and my friend Lars suffered in that court. But, I presume, that’s how life is. Justice is for the rich and powerful.
At the end of this followed a serie of in depth articles in Sygeplersken, the Danish weekly nursing journal, about the Danish prison system. A dedicated team of four journalist were given 7-8 pages every week for about 10 weeks and the editor was heavily critised for this focus on conditions for the ‘undeserving’ prison population.
Another cartoon following the journal’s focus on police brutality. The head of Copenhagen’s police forces is depicted in the (legal) position that caused deaths during the time the articles were written.
Support came also from Psychiatrist Joergen Ortmann, Herstedvester Prison for prisoners suffering from mental health problems. In the end he and I started our own little campaign group (Nurses and Doctors against torture, discrimination, humiliating treatment…) and the letter below is in English and got quite a bit of publicity.
First page of article in Sygeplejersken. They run a series of article with our help. Contact the magazine for them all.
and another in its entirety:
We now move to 2011 and the February issue of AMNESTY .
Sadly, the secret prison that is described here is the same that was established after our criticism