Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission yesterday denied Amnesty International (AI) claims that hunger-striking political detainees at Yangon’s Insein prison were mistreated, following the commission’s first visit to the notorious jail.
However, the government-appointed body admitted the number of inmates in the prison “far exceeds its maximum holding capacity” — a rare admission in the army-dominated country, which has long been criticized for jailing dissenters.
The commission made its first visit to Insein this week, as announced in state media, to follow up on Amnesty claims that 15 inmates were denied drinking water as punishment for protesting in late October.
Amnesty also said that eight of them were believed to have been held in windowless cells designed for dogs.
After meeting with three of the jailed strikers, the commission, created in September by Myanmar’s new nominally civilian government, said Amnesty’s allegations were “untrue.”
“All prisoners interviewed stated that they were not deprived of water and were provided with medical attention both during and after the strikes,” it said in a statement published in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
“The allegations regarding ‘dog cells’ also proved to be untrue. The hunger strikers were each held in cells measuring 3m by 6.5m which were clean and property ventilated,” it said.
However, the panel did say that prison congestion “should be addressed in a timely fashion.” Insein holds over 10,000 inmates, according to officials.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s state-run media reported that commission chairman Win Mra has appealed to Burmese President Thein Sein to issue a general amnesty. Publication of the appeal is significant because the newspapers closely reflect government positions. The commission also repeated a call for the release of prisoners “who do not pose a threat to the stability of the state and public tranquility.”
The government pardoned about 200 political detainees in a much-anticipated amnesty in October, but disappointed observers by leaving many top dissidents behind bars.
A key demand of the opposition and foreign governments has long been the release of all of Myanmar’s political prisoners, estimated by activists to number anywhere from 500 to more than 1,500.
The government could free more political detainees on the national holidays of Jan. 4 and Feb. 12, parliamentary Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee chairman Aung Ko said on Thursday.
The regime, which replaced a long-ruling military junta this year, has surprised critics with a series of reformist moves, including reaching out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as it seeks to end decades of international isolation.
However, previous calls for a general amnesty have not resulted in a full release of inmates who are considered political prisoners.
Kyi Kyi Nyunt said she would believe rumors of a general amnesty only once her brother, former student leader Min Ko Naing, comes home. He is serving a 65-year prison term.