More than 4,000 released as Covid-19 cases surge in Myanmar’s prisons

Nearly 4,300 people have been released from Myanmar’s prisons since last week amid a surge in Covid-19 cases among inmates and unrest over a lack of access to healthcare.

State media reported on Sunday that a total of 4,297 detainees have been released since the junta announced plans to free certain categories of prisoners as a measure to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the country’s detention centres.

According to the report, a total of 566 prisoners have contracted the disease since the start of the third wave of infections earlier this month, up from 375 cases less than a week ago.

Of those who were infected while behind bars, nine have died, the report added. No further details were provided.

Most observers say the number of infections and deaths is likely far higher than the official figures indicate.

According to Sunday’s report, more than a third of the releases have been from Yangon’s Insein Prison, which freed 1,651 prisoners as part of the junta’s scheme to reduce the rate of transmission among prisoners.

Coup critics still at risk

Notably absent from the ranks of those so far released are most of the more than 5,300 people currently being held for opposing the February 1 military coup.

Among those who contracted Covid-19 while in prison was Nyan Win, a senior executive member of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD), who died on July 20 after being transferred to Yangon General Hospital for treatment. 

Despite testing positive for Covid-19 after developing symptoms of the disease, the regime reported that his death was caused by underlying health conditions.

A number of other prominent political prisoners have also been transferred to Yangon General Hospital on suspicion of having contracted Covid-19, according to Tun Kyi of the Former Political Prisoners Society.

Among them, he said, are Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw, a high-profile monk and outspoken critic of the military, student activist Min Thway Thit, NLD legal advisor Kyaw Ho, and NLD executive member Hanthar Myint.

Imprisoned protest leader Moe Thu, 42, likely died of Covid-19, say colleagues (Supplied) 

Moe Thu, a 42-year-old anti-coup protest leader from Khayan Township in Yangon Region, died on July 22 while still detained in Insein Prison. Although her death was officially attributed to a heart attack, her colleagues say she likely died of Covid-19.

“She didn’t have a heart condition. We just assume that she caught Covid-19 in prison. They just cremated her in Yangon. She was never brought back here,” a spokesperson for the basic education occupations union in Khayan said.

No precautions

Despite the high rate of infection in prisons, no efforts have been made to ensure that released prisoners are free of Covid-19, according to some of those who were allowed to leave.

“They checked their list about three times, and then they just let us go,” said one ex-prisoner who was facing drug-related charges. 

“They didn’t even take our temperatures. We just walked out to meet our families waiting for us at the gate. Everyone was wearing masks, though,” he added.

A relative of the released prisoner said that the lack of precautions showed that the regime wasn’t serious about protecting prisoners or the public from Covid-19.

“If they were really trying hard to contain the pandemic, they would have tested the prisoners who were about to be released and thought about transportation and how to isolate them from other people,” the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Prison protest

Fear of Covid-19 has fuelled tensions in Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons, emboldening some to stage protests within their walls. 

Last Friday, people living near Insein Prison said they heard prisoners chanting anti-junta slogans for about an hour, starting at 7am. It was reported that prison staff also joined in calling for the overthrow of the regime.

Witnesses said that military trucks were later seen parked near the prison, as the junta carried out a brutal crackdown that soon silenced the protesters.

In a statement, prison authorities claimed that some inmates had rioted because they weren’t among those released, and because of the suspension of prison visits due to the pandemic.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the chants started in the ward for female prisoners, where the Covid-19 situation has reportedly been especially bad.

AAPP and other advocacy groups say that around 20 prisoners were placed in solitary confinement following the crackdown, which also left a number of prisoners injured.

On Sunday evening, the junta announced through state media that there was no truth to these reports. 

“According to the law, no one is allowed to carry weapons into the prisons. Some negotiations were done. There were not any crackdowns or isolations,” Chan Aye Kyaw, the deputy director of the prison department, was quoted as saying.

However, rights groups, relatives, and lawyers say that they have been unable to contact prisoners believed to have been involved in the protest.

On Saturday, Zaw Zaw, the director of the prison department, told Myanmar Now that prison visits would remain under suspension.

On the same day, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that it would be closely monitoring the situation. It also urged prison authorities to resume visits as soon as possible.

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