Nearly 50 Held in Myanmar’s Insein Prison Now Infected With COVID-19

International experts accuse Myanmar's military rulers of 'weaponizing' the virus by blocking aid from civil society and humanitarian groups.
2021-07-16
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Nearly 50 Held in Myanmar’s Insein Prison Now Infected With COVID-19 Volunteers pray in front of the bodies of people who died from COVID-19 at a cemetery in Mandalay, Myanmar, July 14, 2021.
AFP

Nearly 50 prisoners held in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison are infected with COVID-19 but are being denied effective medical treatment by the country’s military, which overthrew the country’s democratically elected government in a Feb. 1 coup, lawyers for some inmates said on Friday.

Among the 48 now infected are political leaders from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD), doctors connected to the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, and American journalist Danny Fenster, editor of the online Frontier Myanmar magazine.

Top NLD leader Nyan Win, 78, and Yangon Region Social Affairs Minister Naing Lin, both now diagnosed with COVID-19, were arrested on Feb. 1. Nyan Win has been charged under Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code for calling the military coup unlawful and its instructions invalid.

Naing Lin was charged under Section 409 and under Section 55 of Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Law. Nyan Win, already suffering from prostate and gastrointestinal problems, was admitted to Yangon General Hospital on July 11 after testing positive for the disease, NLD lawyer San Malar Nyuint told RFA on July 16.

“He is a little weak, but his oxygen level is good and he has no fever,” the lawyer said. “He was transferred here from the prison hospital. He is also taking medications for his prostate and gastric problems,” he added.

Ko Naing Lin, who was charged under Section 409 of the Penal Code and Section 55 of Myanmar’s Anti-Corruption Law, was not taken to the hospital, though, and is getting treatment in his cell, he said.

Dr. Maw Maw Oo, a key figure in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak during NLD rule, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on July 5 and was admitted to Yangon General Hospital along with Nyan Win. Arrested on April 12, she has been charged under Section 505 (a) for joining Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) opposing military rule.

U.S. journalist Fenster, charged under Section 505 (a) after being arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24, was infected with COVID-19 in Insein Prison but has received no medical treatment at all, defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung said.

“I saw him yesterday by appointment on a video call. I could only see him on the phone. When I asked him how he was doing, he said that he had been infected with COVID-19. I asked him if he was receiving any treatment, and he said no.”

“I told the warden to tell this to the hospital,” Than Zaw Aung said, adding that his client is frustrated that court hearings are not being held more quickly.

Also speaking to RFA, family members of other prisoners held at Insein expressed concern over the presence of infected persons in the prison, which reported its first case of coronavirus on May 25.

Kay Thwe Moe, wife of detained NLD Central Committee member Monywa Aung Shin, said she fears for the health of her husband, who has asthma and suffers from breathing problems in the cold. “Now that there are COVID-19 cases in the prison, I’m very worried about him” she said.

“There’s a lot of rain now in Yangon, and in this kind of weather his asthma gives him problems,” she said.

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A man sits in front of Insein Prison in Yangon while waiting to visit relatives, April 12, 2021. Photo: AFP

Prison under lockdown

Thousands of prisoners are being tried in six military tribunals and 38 special courts set up in Insein Prison, and lawyers believe the virus may have spread to other inmates as around 300 people, including lawyers, enter the prison compound every day.

Due to the spread of infection, Insein Prison is now under lockdown until July 21, though, and the special courts are currently closed.

Most of the prisoners now infected with COVID-19 at Insein Prison were arrested for taking part in anti-coup protests and are not receiving adequate medical care, an official with the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.

“Even under normal circumstances, the health care in prisons is terrible, but this is now a very serious situation,” the AAPP official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know how many people in the country have been infected with the COVID-19 virus, and for people in prison, things are even more worrying.”

“People on the outside may be able to help each other, but it’s harder for people to help each other behind prison walls,” he said.

Zaw Zaw, director of the Yangon Region Prisons Department, said that no infections are present in the main prison building itself, but only among inmates held in special wards and those transported to the prison by police, and that adequate medical treatment is available.

“There is no COVID-19 virus in Insein Prison itself,” he said.

“But there is a test center outside the prison walls where we screen the newcomers, and infected people are kept at this center and not brought inside,” Zaw Zaw said, adding, “Testing began during the second wave of infections. Now, in this third wave, we have found around 50 positive cases.”

“[Prisoners] have special court appointments, and the virus could be transmitted from there,” he said. “When they leave their cells for their hearings they come into contact with outsiders. That’s why we have closed the prison courts and imposed a semi-lockdown.”

Around 20 health workers, including doctors, are now giving necessary medical treatment to infected prisoners in a separate ward inside the prison, prison officials said.

Red Cross provides assistance

Writing to RFA in an email, Jacqueline Fernandez—International Red Cross Information Officer for Myanmar—said that Red Cross workers have been unable to visit prisons in the country since March 2020 due to the pandemic, but have been able to provide some assistance to prisoners by distributing face masks and disinfecting places of detention.

“[We have also] offered COVID-19 prevention information, financial assistance and hygiene items to people as part of our ‘Safe Return Home’ program after they leave detention, and in some cases have provided material support to detainees in quarantine sites,” she said.

In a July 16 statement, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of independent international experts, accused Myanmar’s military rulers of “weaponizing” the COVID-19 crisis by blocking civil society organizations and humanitarian groups from providing aid “for millions of people as a massive third wave of COVID-19 sweeps the country.”

“The junta is weaponizing COVID-19 for its own political gain by suffocating the democracy movement and seeking to gain the legitimacy and control it craves—and has so far been denied—by deliberately fueling a humanitarian disaster and then co-opting the international response,” Council member Yanghee Lee said.

“The generals are not partners for the delivery of aid. They are murderers who will be held to account for their crimes,” Lee said.

The bodies of COVID-19 victims continue to pile up in Yangon each day, with corpses stacked for transport to a crematorium at the city’s Kyizu Cemetery, a citizen journalist said in a video recorded by mobile phone on Friday.

As many as 200 bodies were cremated at Kyiza and other cemeteries around the city on Friday, an official from Myitta Thingaha Volunteer Funeral Services in Yangon’s South Dagon township said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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