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After a six year ban the International Committee of the Red Cross has taken its first steps towards regaining access to Burmese prisons.
Earlier this month the group made three trips to jails across southern and eastern Burma, although access was restricted.
“We are conducting technical assessments of water facilities and other supplies,” said Christian Cardon, spokesperson for the ICRC’s Asia-Pacific office.
He said that although it was “a positive first step”, its mandate fell short of allowing it to conduct the full extent of its work inside Burma. “We’re not talking here about proper ICRC visits to a place of detention, like we have in many other countries.”
Since a ban was slapped on the group in December 2005 after it refused to bow to government demands to allow Burmese officials to accompany staff inside the prisons, Burma’s 200,000-strong prison population has received no outside assistance.
Conditions inside the 43 jails are notoriously poor, with malaria rife and abuse of prisoners by wardens commonplace. Among the inmate population are 1994 political prisoners, some of whom are serving sentences of more than 100 years.
During a visit to Burma last month, US Senator John McCain urged authorities to allow the ICRC freedom to visit prisons, and called for the unconditional release of the political inmates who include politicians, monks, doctors and journalists.
Tate Naing, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), said that the readmission of the ICRC, which from 1999 to 2005 had inspected prison conditions and documented reports from inmates, was a mixed bag.
“It’s a good sign that the [ICRC] are now allowed into the prison, but we see too much restriction by Burmese authorities who are playing political games.
“The ICRC should be allowed to meet with political prisoners, inmates who are receiving hefty punishments and those in poor health. But instead they are only allowed to inspect water and sanitation systems so, if we go step by step from here, it may take about four or five years until they are allow to resume normal procedures as before.”
ICRC officials visited to Karen state’s Hpa-an prison, Mon state’s Moulmein prison and Irrawaddy division’s Myaungmya prison.