Victims of physical abuse inside Insein Prison denied medical treatment

Inmates in Yangon’s Insein Prison who were beaten by staff for engaging in a protest earlier this month have been denied medical treatment for injuries they sustained in the crackdown, the victims’ families have said. 

On December 10, many prisoners locked up on politically motivated charges and convictions refused to leave their cells in solidarity with a nationwide “Silent Strike” taking place that day, the International Day of Human Rights. After the inmates sang an anti-dictatorship song, the Insein authorities then beat, interrogated, and transferred around 90 people to cells in isolation of the general population. 

One of the protesters beaten unconscious was Zaw Htet Naing, also known as Sitt Naing, one of his relatives confirmed to Myanmar Now. 

Zaw Htet Naing attended a court hearing inside the prison on December 15 and those who were present said that it was clear that the activist had received no treatment for a head injury he had suffered. 

He is facing an incitement charge under Section 505a of the Penal Code, which carries a prison term of three years. 

The family member added that  Zaw Htet Naing’s injuries were among the worst endured by the protesting inmates on human rights day.

“His whole face was swollen as he was beaten on the head,” his relative said of his appearance in court. “We were told that he even vomited due to the head injury. He stopped vomiting some time later, though.”

The source also said that the prison authorities tried to conceal the inmates’ wounds by making them wear Personal Protective Equipment—PPE—suits during their court appearances. 

“It would be one thing if the head injury was only an external injury, but it could be very problematic if it is an internal injury. No matter what, they should let someone with head injury get medical attention,” Zaw Htet Naing’s family member told Myanmar Now.

Insein Prison (Zayar Lwin / Facebook)

Zaw Htet Naing is the vice president of the Yangon University of Education Students’ Union and was arrested during an anti-coup protest in Yangon’s Tamwe Township on March 3.

Lay Pyay Soe Moe, a student rights officer from the Yangon University Students’ Union, was also tortured and put in a separate cell as a punishment for protesting. He endured severe injuries at the hands of the prison authorities, according to a friend, Aung Kaung Set, who cited prison sources and said that Lay Pyay Soe Moe was unable to sleep on his back for two days due to wounds he had suffered.

Aung Kaung Set continued that a total of 89 inmates from two cell blocks took part in the December 10 silent strike. 

After singing the anti-dictatorship song in the afternoon, they were forcibly taken to the main prison building within the Insein compound in a vehicle, and ordered to keep their hands on their heads.

“They were beaten twice, once in their cell blocks and once at the main prison building,” Aung Kaung Set said, sharing what he was told by prison sources. “Some even fainted while being beaten. They didn’t stop beating them even when they fainted. It was very bad.”

He stated that the inmates were put in cells isolated from the other prisoners with only the clothes they were wearing on December 10. Six inmates were reportedly forced to share an eight-by-eight-foot cell, he claimed, with pairs of inmates’ feet cuffed together, remaining so even during court hearings. 

After more than one week, they had not been allowed to receive letters or food parcels from their families outside. 

“They’re not getting adequate healthcare nor are they allowed to meet with their families. They’re just torturing the political prisoners on purpose,” Aung Kaung Set said. 

Widespread beatings

A source who spoke to Myanmar Now on the condition of anonymity said that as of mid-December, prison authorities had started indiscriminately physically abusing political prisoners. He too had been detained since his arrest at a protest in Tamwe Township on March 3 and was held on an incitement charge until his release in an amnesty on October 19. 

He said his contacts in the prison told him about the most recent wave of violence against inmates, beginning around December 13.

The cell blocks used for solitary confinement or separate isolation of groups of prisoners within Insein Prison (Zayar Lwin FB)

“They would pick anyone they didn’t like and start beating them. They’d say things like ‘why is your face that way?’ and take them out and start beating them. It is so bad,” the young man said. 

He explained that prisoners were granted some minor privileges after an earlier protest on July 23, but that they were revoked after the protest on December 10. 

In July, prisoners had placed 11 demands, with only the three most minor requests being met by the Insein authorities, including the right to write to their family members once a week, to receive 30 sachets of coffee mix with the letters, and five books per month. These were the acts banned after the Silent Strike. 

“They never planned to grant them those rights for long, anyway. They were simply allowing those three things so that the protests inside the prison would calm down,” the source added. 

Insein Prison was already notorious for exercising brutality towards prisoners, with conditions expected to further deteriorate following the recent crackdown on protests. 

The source who spoke to Myanmar Now said that during his time in the prison he witnessed firsthand a guard slapping another inmate in the face for putting on the wrong sandals, and that the authorities would not intervene when staff abused prisoners. 

“People often get beaten and slapped. It’s like a tradition, at this point. There was even a boy who got slapped so hard that he couldn’t see anything for a while,” he said.

However, the inmates remain defiant that they will not tolerate the violence. 

“They have said that they need the cooperation of comrades outside the prison,” he explained. 

The military council continues to keep the public in the dark regarding the protests and subsequent abuse happening within Insein Prison.

Myanmar Now tried to call the junta’s Prison Department for comment on the situation, but all calls went unanswered. 

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