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Sketches smuggled out of Insein prison expose harsh conditions | Prison News

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In one drawing, dozens of men sit crammed into a single room, hunched with their knees together, every inch of space occupied. In another, they lie back to back on the floor, their faces straining with discomfort.

Fourteen sketches smuggled out of Myanmar’s Insein Prison and interviews with eight former prisoners offer a rare glimpse inside the country’s most notorious jail, where thousands of political prisoners have been sent since last year’s military coup, and communication with the outside world has been sharply limited.

The blue-ink sketches show daily life for groups of male prisoners in their dormitories, queueing for water from a trough to wash, talking or lying on the floor in the tropical heat.

Beyond those depictions, the eight recently released inmates told the Reuters news agency the colonial-era facility in Yangon is infested with rats; a place where bribes are common, prisoners pay for sleeping space on the floor, and widespread illness goes untreated.

“We’re no longer humans behind bars,” said Nyi Nyi Htwe, 24, who smuggled the sketches out of the prison when he was released in October after spending several months there for a defamation conviction. He denies the charges, which are connected to joining protests against the coup.

Reuters could not independently verify the accounts provided by the former inmates.

Myanmar’s military rulers, who seized power from the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, and the prison administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment on conditions shown in the sketches and described by the former inmates.

a blue ink sketch of inmates sitting, some of them cross-legged, inside a crowded Insein prison cell
One of the sketches shows inmates playing board games and sleeping in a crowded cell [Reuters]

Humanitarian groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Reuters they have been denied access to the jail.

Built by the British in 1871, Insein is Myanmar’s largest prison, housing many of those arrested for opposing the military government.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, convicted of breaking Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act in 2017, spent most of their 511 days behind bars in Insein. They were released in a 2019 amnesty before the latest coup.

Frontier Myanmar journalist Danny Fenster was also held in the infamous jail after he was arrested in May last year. He was freed in November, shortly after he had been sentenced to 11 years in prison under charges including incitement, sedition and ‘terrorism’.

 

Prison population surges

The artist drew the prison sketches between April and July of last year. Later released, he declined to be interviewed or identified, telling Nyi Nyi Htwe he feared being rearrested.

Nyi Nyi Htwe, who met the artist in prison, said he sketched prisoners if asked and drew prison scenes wherever he went, saying he felt more relaxed while drawing. He gave Nyi Nyi Htwe the sketches as a birthday present.

Nyi Nyi Htwe said he smuggled them out on his release to show friends, family and others the conditions inside.

Since the coup, 10,072 people have been detained in the Southeast Asian country, including Aung San Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet. More than 1,730 people have also been killed, according to the nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been tracking developments. The military has said AAPP’s figures are exaggerated.

Many of those detained have been sent to Insein.

Built to incarcerate about 5,000 people, the prison has seen inmate numbers swell to more than 10,000 since the coup, said a spokesperson for the AAPP. Reuters could not confirm the figures.

The sketches reflect the increase in the months after the coup, said Nyi Nyi Htwe.

In one from late April, a few prisoners sit apart in their dorm, some reading books. A picture from June shows about 60 people in the same room – many lying in tight rows down the centre, the rest hunched against the walls.

Nyi Nyi Htwe said he and as many as 100 others were packed well beyond capacity into a room where they “slept a finger-width apart,” and that he watched prison officers beat inmates with batons and had to pay bribes to send messages to family that they told him often did not arrive.

A blue ink sketch showing inmates sitting and sleeping in a crowded cell in Insein prison
The overcrowding has led to shortages of water and contributed to outbreaks of disease [Reuters]

‘Lucky not to die’

With the overcrowding came water shortages, disease, fatigue, fighting between prisoners and flourishing bribery, said people released in recent months.

“Rats ran around in the room. The toilets were filthy. The food was mixed with flies. Those who couldn’t pay a bribe had to sleep next to the toilet bucket,” said Sandar Win, a 42-year-old social worker jailed at Insein for several months for defamation after protesting against the military.

She was released under an amnesty while awaiting sentencing for the charges, which she denies. She has since fled Myanmar.

Access to outdoor toilets was limited, forcing prisoners to use buckets in their rooms, three former female inmates said. These unsanitary conditions allowed skin and bowel diseases to spread, and there was little medical help, they said.

A handwritten note by a group of anonymous Insein inmates, smuggled out to a prominent human rights activist in February, alleges several instances of medical negligence, including failure to treat people beaten unconscious and a person who had suffered a stroke and was paralysed.

“These cases are happening right in front of us,” said the note, which was shown to Reuters by the activist, Nan Lin. “We request urgent help from international organisations and local organisations.”

Reuters could not independently verify the note’s authenticity, but several former inmates said they had witnessed or suffered beatings by guards, and there was little medical support.

Despite a COVID-19 vaccination drive at Insein last July that was publicised on state media, former inmates said the coronavirus thrived in the crowded prison. At least 10 prisoners are suspected to have died from the disease, according to the AAPP.

Nyi Nyi Htwe, who has joined an armed rebel group, said nearly two-thirds of his dormitory were sick with COVID symptoms during last year’s northern summer.

“They put all the sick people in our room – high fever, coughing and ill,” he said. “I was lucky enough not to die.”

A set of smuggled notes shown to Reuters by an aid group show an exchange between a father, held on defamation charges, and his young son.

“Behaving well, Papa. I miss you. I’d like to have a toy boat,” wrote the boy.

“My little son,” came the reply, including a tiny boat the father fashioned from instant coffee wrappers. “I love you so much, my sweetheart. Please listen to your grandma.”



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European energy giants set to keep buying Russian gas | Oil and Gas News

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The European Union’s guidelines appear to allow the continent’s energy giants to keep buying Russian gas without breaching sanctions.

By Bloomberg

European energy giants are pressing ahead with plans to keep buying Russian gas as the European Union’s guidelines appeared to allow them to do so without breaching sanctions.

Even as conflicting messages continued to emerge from Brussels over the legality of complying with Moscow’s demands to pay for gas in rubles, Italy’s Eni SpA said it was opening a ruble account to keep the gas flowing.

It’s the clearest sign yet that the biggest European importers of Russian gas are counting on business as usual. Germany’s Uniper SE and Austria’s OMV AG also expect to find a way to keep buying.

Moscow’s demand on March 31 that gas payments should now be made in rubles threw markets and policy makers into disarray and companies have been scrabbling ever since for a way to keep the crucial energy flowing without breaching sanctions aimed at weakening Russia in its war in Ukraine. The move has divided the bloc, with Poland and Bulgaria quick to reject Moscow’s demands — and have their gas cut off as punishment.

Share of natural gas imports coming from Russia, 2020 |

The bloc has issued two sets of guidance on the matter so far, both of which allow room for interpretation. There’s still nothing in writing from the Commission that explicitly stops companies from paying Gazprom PJSC in a way that the Russian company has indicated would be satisfactory.

Gas prices fell on Monday as the latest Brussels missive to member states stopped short of banning companies from opening bank accounts in rubles. Then on Tuesday, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said that opening an account in rubles would go beyond the recommendations and constitute a breach of sanctions. Gas prices rose, before easing back again after Eni said it was pressing ahead.

“Anything that goes beyond opening an account in the currency of the contract with Gazprombank and making a payment to that account and then issuing a statement saying that with that you consider you have finalized the payment contravenes the sanctions,” Mamer said.

The issue has divided the bloc, with Poland outraged at the EU’s reluctance to set out clear red lines. In the opposite camp, Prime Minister Mario Draghi went as far as to say that it was a gray area when it came to sanctions. And enforcing sanctions is a matter for member states, rather than the bloc.

“There is no official pronouncement of what it means to breach sanctions,” he said. “Nobody has ever said anything about whether ruble payment breach sanctions.”

(releads)

–With assistance from Vanessa Dezem, Jonathan Tirone, Alberto Nardelli and Jerrold Colten.



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EU set to approve new military aid for Ukraine | Russia-Ukraine war News

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Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell says bloc set to approve another 500 million euros ($527m) in military aid for Ukraine.

European Union defence ministers are set to approve another 500 million euros ($527m) in military aid for Ukraine, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said.

“We have to continue to support the Ukrainians with arms, that’s why we will pull 500 million euros more” from the European Peace Facility, Borrell told reporters on Tuesday on the way to the meeting of EU defence ministers.

The new tranche of military support would bring the bloc’s military aid to 2 billion euros ($2.1bn).

Borrell also expressed support for Finland and Sweden’s requests to join NATO and hoped the alliance would be able to overcome Turkey’s objection to the bids.

According to Borrell, the two countries will “receive strong support from all member states because it increases our unity and makes us stronger”.

German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht and her Luxembourg counterpart Francois Bausch argued both countries belonged in NATO “because of the values that they are defending”.

Sweden has signed a formal request to join NATO, a day after the country announced it would seek membership in the 30-member military alliance.

Legislators in Finland have formally approved Finnish leaders’ decision to join as well.

The moves by the two Nordic countries, ending Sweden’s more than 200 years of military non-alignment and Finland’s non-alignment after World War II, have provoked the ire of the Kremlin.

While most NATO members are keen to welcome the two countries as quickly as possible, Turkey has potentially complicated their accession by saying it cannot allow them to become members because of their perceived inaction against exiled Kurdish fighters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday doubled down on comments last week indicating that the two Nordic countries’ path to NATO would be anything but smooth.

He accused the two Nordic countries of refusing to extradite “terrorists” wanted by his country.

“Turkey has opposition to this. Turkey says that the two harbour terrorism, that they have supporters of the PKK and the Kurdish nationalists living in their countries. This is something that throughout the week is going to be a big issue,” Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays reported from Brussels.

“We understand that the Turkish foreign minister and the US secretary of state are going to meet in New York in the coming days but how can this issue be overcome?”

Turkey is a NATO member. All 30 NATO countries must agree to open the door to new members.

Sanctions against Russia stalled

The EU has been unable to agree on its sixth package of sanctions against Russia – which includes asset freezes and travel bans on prominent supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The plan outlined earlier this month by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen included an embargo on Russian oil imports to come into effect at the end of 2022.

The sanctions against Russia target individuals including Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as well as banning the export of luxury goods, and coal imports, and excluding Russian and Belarusian banks from using the SWIFT international payment system.

However, Hungary, which is nearly completely dependent on Russian oil, is holding up an EU-wide embargo that requires unanimity from the 27 member states.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has likened the oil embargo to an atomic bomb hitting his country’s economy.



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Dozens injured in Israeli police attack on Palestinian funeral | Jerusalem News

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Walid al-Sharif’s funeral was attacked just days after an Israeli attack on journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral.

More than 70 Palestinians were injured after Israeli police lobbed tear gas canisters and shot rubber-coated bullets at a funeral procession for a young Palestinian man who had succumbed to injuries sustained at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound last month.

Hundreds of mourners joined the funeral procession on Monday for Walid al-Sharif, who was pronounced dead on Saturday.

Al-Sharif suffered a serious head injury on April 22 after Israeli police fired rubber-coated bullets at Palestinians at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.

Palestinian witnesses and al-Sharif’s family say he was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet, while Israeli authorities have suggested he died from injuries sustained when he fell on the ground. Israeli hospital officials declined to give a precise cause of death.

Amateur video of the attack shows a large group of Palestinians running away from the direction of heavy Israeli fire. Immediately after one shot, al-Sharif is seen falling on his face and lying motionless on the ground. Israeli police then took him away.

After falling into a coma, al-Sharif died in hospital. His body was taken by Israeli authorities after his death, until it was released to his family on Monday.

Mourners at the funeral, some of whom were carrying Palestinian flags, took al-Sharif’s body for prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque before proceeding to a cemetery outside of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said 71 Palestinians were wounded from rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades and beatings after Israeli forces attacked the funeral.

“Israeli forces fired rubber-coated bullets at an ambulance carrying the coffin of the dead Palestinian youth,” a witness said.

Al Jazeera reporter Wajd Waqfi, who was covering the funeral, said Israeli police attacked mourners and prevented them from carrying Palestinian flags. She also said dozens were arrested by Israeli police.

Thirteen people required hospitalisation, including two with eye injuries, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre, one of the Palestinians with an injury to the eye is a relative of al-Sharif. The relative, Nader al-Sharif, is reportedly in a critical condition.

Police said six officers were hurt and 20 Palestinians were arrested, including five people suspected of an attempted hit-and-run.

Israeli police said its forces “acted resolutely against hundreds of lawbreakers and violent rioters who … took violent actions against the forces endangering their lives”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s office accused the Jerusalem police of a “cruel and barbaric act”. It said there will be no peace and stability in the region until the creation of a Palestinian state, with occupied East Jerusalem as its capital.

Jordan’s foreign ministry also condemned the attack on al-Sharif’s funeral procession as an “inhumane act” and said Israel must respect its obligations to international humanitarian law, as the occupying force in East Jerusalem.

Monday’s attack on al-Sharif’s funeral came just days after police pushed and beat mourners, including pallbearers, at the Jerusalem funeral for Shireen Abu Akleh, a renowned Al Jazeera journalist who was killed by Israeli soldiers on Wednesday while reporting on a military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

Al-Aqsa Mosque compound has become a frequent site of tensions as an increasing number of Israeli Jews have attempted to upend the status quo by praying there.

Israeli police attacked Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound several times during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which largely fell during April, injuring hundreds of Palestinians.

The silver-domed mosque inside the 35-acre (14-hectare) compound is referred to as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, by Muslims, and as the Temple Mount by Jews.





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