Who are the most difficult group of people to campaign onbehalf of? Who do people care least about?
Prisoners. Why? The argument goes something like: Otherpeople who suffer injustice, poverty or disease have done nothing to deserveit. People in prison, even if they are being ill-treated, have committed crimesand as such ‘deserve’ some form of punishment. They can’t be high up the listof people to worry about.
But – two shocking reports of extreme ill-treatment ofprisoners this week should blast this prejudice sky high. And not least becausewe’re talking about places where the justice system is notoriously unfair,where there’s no guarantee whatsoever that those under lock and key are trulyguilty of any crime.
South Africa’s state TV company SABC broadcast ‘HellHole’ on Tuesday night, a documentary featuring undercover filming of conditionsin Zimbabwean prisons – they’re appalling. There are dire food shortages andprisoners are not even able to beg or forage like those on the outside do;there is rampant disease including cholera, with those who are still healthyforced to share cells with those who are dying; staff have started to dig massgraves within the prisons to cope with the numbers of dead.
Amnesty has reported many times on the gross failingsof the Zimbabwean justice system – torture of suspects by police, unfairtrials, political influence over the judiciary. Who can say just how many ofthose languishing in prison in Zimbabwe are guilty of no crime whatsoever? Butmore than that – what has a country come to when it allows any person, guiltyor innocent, to suffer in this way?
And here’s something you don’t expect to hear – China haslaunched a three-month campaign to “eliminate unnatural deaths of inmates”.This follows at least five deaths of prisoners in recent months, includingcases where it was initially reported that a man died while playing hide andseek with other prisoners, and another died while having a nightmare. Thecampaign is designed to improve prison officers’ respect for the law,professional ethics and human rights.
This is already progress – that the Chinese authoritiesrecognise this problem and say they will train prison staff. Especially as inChina you may well be in prison for criticising the government or for being amember of an ethnic or religious minority. In 2007 around half a million peoplewere imprisoned without even being charged or tried.
Someone else we’re thinking of who has been imprisonedfor almost two years and still not had a trial is Dr Binayak Sen, anaward-winning doctor and public health specialist who is in prison inChhattisgarh state in India. We’re worried that his conditions of detention arepoor and he may not be receiving the medical care he himself needs. You canwrite to the Indian authorities on his behalf here.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.