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Europe

Austria's Romanian Prison Plan

Calling it a way to save taxpayers' money, the Austrian government plans to build a prison in Romania and deport Romanian criminals immediately to their home country. Critics say the proposal has "a touch of xenophobia."

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Austria's next present to Romania?

Anyone flying over the prison in the western Romanian town of Timisoara might notice that the buildings' shape resembles the letters "MT." They stand for Maria Theresia, the 18th century Austrian empress who ruled the region at the time of the prison's construction.

Dieter Böhmdorfer is unlikely to receive this honor, but he's set to become the next Austrian responsible for a new prison built on Romanian soil. By doing so, Böhmdorfer, who serves as his country's justice minister, wants to save taxpayers' money.

About 375 Romanians are currently imprisoned in Austria and cost the state about €13.5 million ($17.3 million) per year. That's 10 times the amount Austria would have to pay to house them in prisons back home. The deal could be finalized as early as March.

Crime rate endangers Romania's EU application

The government also sees the plan as a way to deal with a 50 percent increase in the number of Romanian crime suspects in Austria last year. Ministers blame this on the abolishment of visa requirements for Romanians to enter the EU in 2002. The Austrian government has already threatened to veto Romania's application to join the union in 2007 because of rising crime rates.

Justizminister Dieter Böhmdorfer

Dieter Böhmdorfer

Böhmdorfer (photo), who represents the populist right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), also wants to deport Romanians who have confessed a crime immediately to their home country and send along any evidence so that they can stand trial there. Rejecting calls by FPÖ politicians to set up similar programs with Turkey and Nigeria, Böhmdorfer told reporters that Austria will have to make sure criminals are tried and -- if necessary -- jailed according to Austrian standards.

The Romanian government, which is also talking to Italy about setting up a similar agreement, has welcomed the idea, saying that the country could use another prison. Besides, the social reintegration of criminals would be easier if they served their time close to relatives, Romanian Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu said.

Critics question prison standards

Critics of the plan agree but question whether a Romanian prison can live up to Austrian standards. "They have inmates sharing beds," Michaela Klemens of Amnesty International's Austrian division told AP news service. "We have to make sure that the European human rights convention is honored. We cannot say, 'Let's just move them back home, get them out of our jurisdiction and then bye-bye.'"

Austrian opposition members have also criticized the plan as "absurd and pointless," saying that Austria could not just build a prison and then hand it over to the Romanians. Deporting people for petty crimes to their home country also had a "touch of xenophobia," Hannes Jarolim, a legal expert for the Social Democrats (SPÖ), said according to German public television.

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