A political activist freed from jail during an amnesty earlier this month has said he will be filing a complaint to a newly-framed human rights body alleging physical abuse at the hands of senior prison officials.
Aung Than Htun spent three and a half years of a five-year sentence in Irrawaddy division’s Myaungmya prison for his work with the opposition National League for Democracy, before being released on 12 October. Now, he says, he will submit case material to the government-backed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) documenting extensive abuse in the prison.
The former political prisoner claims he and other activists like him were beaten with batons by Myaungmya’s deputy chief warden, Ye Min Aung, on a regular basis.
Another inmate, Soe Thiha, from the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), is serving a life sentence in Myaungmya. Aung Than Htun claims he was beaten round the head so badly after questioning prison regulations that he suffered concussion, before being put in solitary confinement.
Abuse of inmates in Burma by prison officials is thought to be extensive. While Aung Than Htun claims that regular inmates were not spared, the torture of political prisoners is better documented, particularly during the interrogation phase when police attempt to extract information about opposition operations.
Lengthy spells in solitary confinement are common, as is the practice of transferring inmates to remote prisons far from their families. Often these are in Burma’s far-north border regions, where winters are harsh and hot season’s bringing the onset of rampant malaria.
Rights groups claim the relocation of prisoners to remote jails may be tantamount to torture, given the huge distance needed to travel for visiting family members who are often an inmate’s only source for medication.
The issue of the wholesale release of political prisoners in Burma remains the key litmus test for the new government – around 220 of the more than 6,300 inmates released in the amnesty were political prisoners, leaving some 1,700 behind bars.
Despite the NHRC making a rare reference to the presence of “prisoners of conscience” in Burmese jails, the government still denies that anyone is in prison on political charges: Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said recently that only “common criminals” are jailed.
Critics have also questioned the legitimacy of the NHRC, whose 15-member body includes former ministers and which has said it will only focus on new complaints over human rights abuses, and not the hundreds stagnating in the country’s woeful judicial system.