Two Reuters journalists are on trial in Myanmar/Burma, under a colonial-era Official Secrets Act, arrested while they were working on an investigative piece on a massacre of 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din. They have been fighting a legal battle that has caught the world’s attention ever since, especially as a milestone case for the country regarding the freedom of the press.
Reuters recently reported on the condition in which the journalists have been held, especially upon their arrest — Kyaw Soe Oo said that he was forced to his knees when he was arrested and that they “put black hoods on us outside the Htaunt Kyant police station and we stayed hooded until we arrived at Aung Tha Pyay … There were around ten interrogation officers who took turns interrogating me. They didn’t let us rest and asked questions for three days straight while I was in handcuffs.”
The two could wind up spending up to 14 years in prison.
Conditions in Burmese imprisonment can vary greatly — the country is notorious for imprisoning voices of dissent, and their confinement can look like the relatively comfortable house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi (though she did suffer imprisonment in more difficult places as well), or it can look like a cell in Insein Prison, Yangon, some of which are literally designed for dogs (and everywhere in between).
Insein Prison itself is pretty notorious for its conditions — including several instances of torture, on top of overall poor healthcare and sanitation. Inmates rarely get treatment for disease or injuries sustained during their incarceration, and as a result, many of them die. These aren’t all rapists and murderers either, many of them are political prisoners. Saw Winston Htoo, a Christian Karen man, and a political prisoner, described his incarceration at Insein as such:
All five of us were put under the Political Prisoners Act. There are three sections: 17/1, 8/3, and 5J. We were sentenced under sections 17/1 and 8/3. They sent us to Insein Prison on March 29, 1990. At Insein, we were put in Ward 5; there are 7 big wards. Ward 5 had eight rooms. I was put in a room 100 feet by 50 feet, while the others were put in different rooms. In my room there were 140 prisoners. Each room has about 15 or 20 political prisoners in among all the others. There was very little room for us to sleep – we all had to keep our bodies straight, and many of us had to sleep on our sides. There were only 5 or 6 sleeping mats in the whole room, so we all had to sleep on the cement floor. They allowed us to have a bath once a day. We had to line up in rows of 5 men at a time, and we were allowed 5 bowls of water, then soap, then 7 more bowls of water. But there were many problems – sometimes there was no water supply, so they wouldn’t let us take a bath and we could hardly even get water to drink. There were latrines in 2 places – outside of the room for the daytime, and in the room at night. The latrines always had guards, and to use them you had to bribe the guard with 2 cheroots. The latrine was just a bucket, with no water. You could use paper if you could get some, but we used to beg scraps of cloth from the men who worked in the sewing workshop out in the compound. he feeding system was like the bathing system – we had to sit 5 in a row while the cooks brought rice, one plate each. Then you go yourself to get bean paste and fishpaste.
In Insein Prison there are about 9,900 or 10,000 prisoners altogether. There are 500 political prisoners, who are in wards 3, 4, and 5, and also in single cells and other special places. In my room, there were 3 or 4 different kinds of prisoners, and more than 20 political prisoners. Some were monks, and students from 1988 sentenced under Section 5J and Section 1221 – high treason, and revolt against the State. We had to work cultivating crops for the jail workers and cleaning the jail wards; as we were political prisoners, they couldn’t send us to do road construction and other work outside the jail. Inside the jail, we got the same treatment as the criminal prisoners. The guards said, “If you’ve come to prison, you must live as a prisoner. All the same.”
Many times I saw prisoners being beaten and tortured, usually for stealing, gambling or quarrelling. First the guards beat them with a rubber pipe, and then they took them to the gravel path. They’ve made a gravel path, and they order the victim to crawl along it on his elbows and knees. They follow him with 2 or 3 dogs biting his legs. To escape their biting, the victim tries to crawl back to the cell as fast as he can on the gravel, so he scrapes all the skin off his elbows and legs. I saw them do this at least once or twice a month, especially in hot season, because in hot season it gets very hot and we’re all in a very confined area, so there are more quarrels. This never happened to me – the political prisoners seldom quarrelled.
When we had fever they never gave us any medicine. If it gets very bad then they send you to the prison hospital, where many people die. The sick prisoners want to go to the hospital, but the guards never send them there until it’s already too late, so many die once they get to the hospital. I got fever but I didn’t want to go to their hospital, because I was afraid of their dirty needles and contagious diseases. At the hospital they have doctors, but not enough medicines. Once in 1991, all the political and other prisoners in my ward held a hunger strike to demand proper health care and the right to read the newspapers, but none of our demands were granted. They said if we made our demands individually they’d listen to us, but if we made united demands they wouldn’t listen. Then they tortured some of our hunger strike leaders with the dogs on the gravel path.
While I was there, about 5 people in my room died. People who finished their sentences were released, but more prisoners always came. Twice in 1992 and 1993 they announced that they were going to release political prisoners, but then they only released those who had no more than 1 or 2 months left of their sentences anyway. Since then, there are still just as many new political prisoners arriving as ever before. Whenever any room is available, more prisoners come in, both political and others. Nothing at all has changed since I first arrived there.”
A non-profit called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said in a report that,
Prisons are one such place where [human rights] abuses are particularly likely to occur. They are hidden from the public eye, and prisoners are shown little sympathy by the general public. This creates an environment of increased impunity, which in turn leads to the violation of basic human rights for many individuals. This is true for both political prisoners and criminal prisoners alike. Reforming the prison system, although perhaps not politically expedient, is therefore crucial to eliminating human rights violations.”
The AAPP report outlines things like overcrowding, which can lead to other, severe, problems:
Prison overcrowding has been identified worldwide as one of the most prevalent problems facing penitentiary systems in both the developed and developing world. Overcrowding causes a great deal of issues, placing strains on the public health system in prisons, the sanitation infrastructure, and the individual prisoners and staff themselves. It limits the ability of staff to create a safe and secure environment for themselves and the prisoners and prevents them from separating prisoners according to separate classes. In its most severe form, “it can lead to conditions that constitute inhuman and degrading treatment for prisoners and unacceptable working conditions for prison staff.” It is therefore interlinked with a number of the other human rights issues that will be discussed in this section, including torture, health care provision, and the separation of prisoners.”
These are the conditions that the two Reuters journalists may be facing for up to 14 years if they are convicted and receive the maximum sentencing.
Featured image: Reuters journalist Wa Lone, center, talks to journalists as he leaves the court after his trial Wednesday, March 7, 2018, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. The trial hearing resumed for two Reuters journalists charged of violating state secrets. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 for acquiring “important secret papers” from two policemen. | AP Photo/Thein Zaw