Cantonal government spends for a jail never used

A Federal Financial Police report shows the chain of events that led to the construction of what should have been a jail that sits empty near a school full of children.

Srednjebosanski Canton (SBK) officials paid more than 261,337 KM for land and a building in Travnik to turn into a detention center. Six years later, the canton is still paying 200,000 KM a year to house prisoners elsewhere while the site is unusable.

A cantonal study last year found the building in danger of collapse and unsuitable for any full-time activity.

‘I don’t know what the future has in store for these premises’ said Canton Justice Minister Novak Jotanović. ‘My suggestion was to sell it.’

‘We still don’t have interested buyers’ he added, ‘nor has the government decided to sell the building.’

The minister said that the former government under Zdenko Vukić made a mistake buying the building, without prior ‘expertise of the building’s location and its utility.’

Still, he said, SBK does need a detention center of its own. Boarding prisoners elsewhere is costing 30 KM a day per person, he said.

Meanwhile, the cantonal Prosecutor’s Office is looking into who pushed a business arrangement so disadvantageous to the canton and why.

Canton Premier Salko Selman refused to talk with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN). Sabahudin Hadžialić, head of his cabinet, said Selman was busy campaigning.

Strange property deal

Even if SBK officials decide to sell their jail site, they could have trouble doing so.

Land records in the Municipality Court in Travnik show the canton may not have a clear title to use of the land it bought from a businessman who last September was convicted of war crimes and sent to prison for five years.

The story goes like this. In 1997, Kemal Bajramovic, principal of the Travnik primary school, with permission from the executive boards of the school and municipality, signed a contract to sell a half-hectare of school land to Abduladhim Maktouf, a businessman who proposed building a fitness center.

It seemed like a perfect use for extra land that had become a dumping ground near the school’s tennis court.

Maktouf gave 15,000 KM from the sale to pay for a fence put up around the school.

But in 1999, after construction of that center had begun, Maktouf gave the property as a present to his mother, Sabiha Saber of Travnik. She continues to have use of the land under public ownership, records show.

Soon followed a shock, the principal said. The canton bought the building off Maktouf’s mother in 2000, intending to build a jail.

Parents react

Parents rebelled.

‘It was insane’ the principal said, for officials to think about putting up a building near children that could potentially house criminal suspects, even killers or drug dealers.

BiH Justice Minister Slobodan Kovač said no law forbids the construction of jails and prisons near schools, but it is not common. Detention centers usually go up near courts and hospitals, away from forests, he said.

At any rate, the government dropped the jail idea in the face of protests from parents, school and Travnik municipal authorities.

Bajramović referred questions about how the canton came to pick the Maktouf property for its jail to Adil Lozo. Lozo was deputy justice minister at the time of the sale. Two months after the contract he and Maktouf became business partners and later Lozo represented Maktouf during his war crimes trial.

Lozo would not comment except to say he was done talking about the detention center.

What to do now?

Cantonal authorities have tried in vain to do something with the property.

Jotanović said plans to put an archive or some cantonal department there had to be dropped after the building was found to be unsafe.

Now, the cantonal Prosecutor’s Office is looking into the bungled business deal.

FBIH Financial Police in 2003 identified Lozo as one of two officials who promoted the old school property as a jail site, but did not name him as a suspect. They charged that Vukić, in his capacity as canton president, was a party to a contract that damaged the public budget.

Financial Police found it odd that Vukić signed a contract for property with Saber, and paid 261,337 KM into Maktouf’s account.

‘From this distance’ said Vukić, ‘I have to say that …there was a series of compromises at the time. Nobody was thinking back then about the school. Somebody else should’ve thought about the school, if you ask me.’

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