MANDALAY—Despite Burma’s ongoing reforms and new political freedoms, political prisoners in Mandalay Division’s Ohbo Prison say they are still being ill-treated and forced to carry out hard labor.
When Aung Ko Latt was brought to Ohbo Prison Court on Tuesday he managed to exchange a few words with a reporter and complained about the maltreatment that he and other prisoners of conscience suffered.
“The remaining political prisoners are forced to do hard labor,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We are also forced to do what we don’t want to do.”
Aung Ko Latt was arrested in June 2011 on accusations that he was involved in a bomb explosion in Myoma Zay, the main market in Burma’s political capital Naypyidaw.
He was also charged with article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, on allegations that he was a member the Karen National Union—a claim that the ethnic rebel militia has denied. He has been detained ever since, pending an outcome of his trial.
A number of former political prisoners from Ohbo Prison have said that the institution’s current chief, Kyaw Win, is a former army officer who imposes an abusive, harsh prison regime on those imprisoned for political reasons. Currently, at least 44 political prisoners are reportedly incarcerated in Ohbo Prison.
Myin Thwin, a lawyer who regularly represents rights activists in Burmese courts, said that prisoners who are sentenced for political offences cannot be forced to do hard labor under Burmese law. If their case is also attached to other offences hard labor can be encompassed in their sentence. “If a person is imprisoned for a political offence, he doesn’t need to do hard labor,” he said.
Myin Thwin added that well-known draconian laws—such as the Penal Code’s Article 505 (B) charge of instigation or destruction of stability or government—did not allow for sentencing to hard labor.
However, in recent years the government has also sought to punish rights activists under other laws so that heavier penalties can be imposed, the lawyer said. “After 2007, activists got arrested and sentenced with additional charges related to the Immigration Act, Electronic Act, etc. The latter includes hard labor,” he said.
The Ohbo Prison complex was once known for serious torture of political prisoners. Thet Win Aung, a young student leader, died there in 2006 after suffering abuse while serving a 59-year term.
Aye Thein, a former prisoner of conscience who was released from Ohbo this month, alleged that prison management does not provide inmates with blankets in the winter and forces them to wake up at 4 am. Living conditions and the sanitation system in prison are poor, and affect prisoners’ health, he said.
Lawyer Myint Thwin said the continuing reports of rights abuse in Burma’s prisons would continue—despite the country’s supposed reforms—unless prison management is overhauled and made to follow existing rules.
“There would be no human rights violations for prisoners if the Prison Department acted in accordance with the jail manual,” he said. “The manual sets standards. Such as that prisoners are entitled to three meals a day and provided with blankets. So, if we follow it then there will be no injustices.”
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma has documented extremely harsh conditions in Burmese prisons, as inmates suffer from major health risks due to disease, malnutrition, poor sanitation, unclean water and lack of healthcare. Beatings, torture and other maltreatment are common, and many prisoners die during detention.