In prisons in the former East Germany, guards regularly beat and mistreated prisoners. Now reports have surfaced that in one prison in the region, that practice has continued.
Prisoners claim they were abused at the Brandenburg/Havel prison in eastern Germany.
Masked guards beating up inmates with truncheons, broken bones and heart attacks induced by physical abuse. These are the images associated with the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
But recent revelations have shown that prisoner abuse can happen much closer to home. A regional broadcaster in eastern Germany has aired claims that prisoners in a penal institution in the state of Brandenburg were mistreated by guards.
The news first surfaced after a regional television station, RBB, aired a film about attacks on inmates at the Brandenburg/Havel prison between 2001 and 2004. The report was based on statements by two former victims and one current inmate of the prison, who said that masked prison officers would often come into the cells in groups of three or four and rough up the prisoners with their fists and batons. They said that some prisoners suffered broken bones and other serious injuries.
"They hit me with rubber truncheons"
Even seriously ill inmates weren't spared by the officers, according to the prisoners interviewed.
A 53-year-old Russian-German inmate Friedrich Frank told reporters that on January 13 he banged on his cell door complaining about acute pain in his chest and demanding to see a doctor. A paramedic checked his blood pressure and said it was normal.
Five masked prison officers then allegedly stormed into Frank's cell and beat him up with shields and truncheons.
"I fell with my face to the ground, they just continued pushing and they hit me with rubber truncheons," Frank told RBB. He was then handcuffed and taken to an isolation cell. It was only on the following day that a doctor confirmed that he had had a heart attack.
A source close to the prison told the daily Berliner Zeitung that the prison authorities were aware of the inmate's illness. "He had just come out of the hospital a couple of weeks earlier," said the source, who asked not to be named, and added it had been a mistake to put Frank in a prison at the mercy of the guards.
"In any case, a doctor should have been called or (Frank) should have been taken to the prison hospital," the source said.
Justice minister defends use of masks
Brandenburg's justice minister Barbara Richstein (left) with the director of the Brandenburg/Havel prison Hermann Wachter.
Brandenburg's justice minister Barbara Richstein of the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Party has come under fire for permitting prison officers to wear masks in certain situations.
"It's normal that there's protective gear because you can always have a prickly situation. The officers claim that they feel the need for protection. They were scared that the inmates would take revenge, for example, on their family members," Richstein said.
However, justice ministers in other German states such as Hamburg, Saxony and Berlin have ruled out the use of masks in prisons. "It would be unthinkable for us," Berlin's justice ministry spokeswoman Andrea Boehnke said. At the most, security gear such as helmets, shields, protective vests and batons are on hand in the prison, she said.
Communist East Germany's prison brutality endures
Richstein has said that the prison in Brandenburg, a state that was formerly part of communist East Germany, has retained far more prison guards from that period than penal institutions other eastern German states, indicating that they could have continued with their notoriously brutal methods of prisoner control.
Local broadcaster RBB reported that the prison was infamous in East Germany for its masked hit-squads, who used to terrorize inmates.
Richstein has now ordered a review of the prison guards from former communist East Germany.
"We've been working since last week as fast as we can to clear up these possible incidents," spokeswoman Dorothee Stacke told the dpa news agency.
The scandal has cost several people their jobs. A prison spokeswoman confirmed that five officers and the prison director responsible in the case of Friedrich Frank have been suspended from duty. Disciplinary proceedings have been opened against other prison employees. It remains unclear whether Richstein will face dismissal. She has the support of Brandenberg's Interior Minister Jörg Schönbohm, who said she had his office's "absolute trust."