North Korea: Stories From The Forgotten Prisons

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

Explore the system of political prison camps in North Korea

This is the first of several postings of the North Korea Revealed blogging series, published in the context of efforts to establish a Commission of Inquiry at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25 – March 22). Join the conversation through #NKRevealed.

I was born in North Korea in 1982. I was born in a political prison camp (…) and lived there until I escaped in 2005 (…) I was born to an imprisoned mother and father. —Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean born in a political prison camp to have escaped.

Shin’s shocking story personifies the horrors of North Korea’s vast network of political prison camps, believed to house over a hundred thousand prisoners. His story is emblematic for the daily forced hard labor, calculated starvation and torture that prisoners have to endure. It also reflects the system of collective punishment that results in the incarceration of several generations of one family, often for life. You can hear more from Shin on a new video playlist, together with testimonies of other escapees and exiles. Their voices urge immediate action to stop the horrors of the prison camps. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Congress Seeks to Improve Prison Conditions Around the World

For years, we’ve documented horrendous conditions in prisons all around the world in our Annual Report. Detainees are often held in inhumane prison conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate food, water and medical care, and are often subjected to other forms of ill-treatment and torture. Family members and legal counsel are often barred from visiting, and juveniles can be detained with adults. Every day, prisoners around the world die in prison due to ill-treatment, in contravention of international human rights standards.

But I’m happy to report that the US Congress is finally paying attention. Just a little over two weeks ago, Senators Patrick Leahy and Sam Brownback and Congressmen Bill Delahunt and Joseph Pitts introduced the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act of 2010 (S.3798 in the Senate and H.R.6153 in the House of Representatives).

On any given day, millions of people are languishing in foreign prisons, many awaiting trial not yet having been formally charged or proven guilty of anything, deprived of their freedom for years longer than they could have been sentenced to prison if convicted. Others convicted of crimes, often after woefully unfair trials, including for nothing more than peacefully expressing political or religious beliefs or defending human rights. Regardless of their status they have one thing in common. They are deprived of the most basic rights and necessities–safe water, adequate food, essential medical care, personal safety, and dignity.

Anyone who has been inside one of these facilities, or seen photographs or the press reports of what they are like, understands that I am talking about the mistreatment of human beings in ways that are reminiscent of the Dark Ages.

- Senator Patrick Leahy, introducing the bill on September 16, 2010

The bill would help ensure that countries receiving US assistance do not operate prisons and other detention facilities under inhumane conditions and would provide assistance to countries making significant efforts to improve conditions in their prisons. Most importantly, the bill would mandate that the US government reprogram, restructure or even decrease US assistance to countries unwilling to improve prison conditions.

So take action today by asking your Members of Congress to co-sponsor the Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act. Your voice will help ensure that this Congress takes action on this important issue and that we don’t have to wait any longer to see improvements in prison conditions around the world.

The Gambia, Where Persecution Has Replaced Justice

The following comes to us from Essa Bokarr Sey, the former Ambassador of the Republic of The Gambia to France (1999-2001) and to the United States (2002-2003). We asked him to share with us his perspective on The Gambia today, in light of this week’s Day of Action for Ebrima Manneh. To learn more about Amnesty International’s concerns about human rights in The Gambia, click here.

President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia monopolizes power with excessive force. In The Gambia of today being an opposition or exercising one’s right towards freedom of expression is a considered social taboo. Fear is ruling our people without limits or respect for the rule of law.

In The Gambia three scary names are used to maintain the brutal Jammeh regime in power.

1) The NIA (National Intelligence Agency) is first on the list. It is known for abducting, torturing and killing Gambians who dare show their difference in political opinion before the regime’s modus operandi. The NIA was established as soon as the Jammeh regime came into existence based with reference to decrees that were promulgated by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. These special decrees empowered the NIA to arrest any Gambian upon suspicion and keep him or her for days without trial. They are still in full force. The latter contradicts the very essence of the Gambia constitution. Worst of all the NIA is directly answerable to the minister of defense who is President Jammeh, him being the hub of all abuses with the excessive use of power.

2) The state guard is a special squad composed of thugs and killers who run along the length and breadth of the country with unmarked vehicles. The latter can visit the residence of any Gambian at any time then abduct and incarcerate him or her while using harsh torture methods. Their callous and brutal methods started mushrooming from 1994 November 11 when officers of the Gambia National Army were summarily executed. Over the years many more were killed like former Lt Seye, former state guard commander Lt Almamo Manneh and others. Killings that are based on nothing other than speculation or whirling accusations which usually reflects suspicion from a paranoid leadership. These are crime scenes where clear indications have so far implicated the state guard beyond any reasonable doubt.

3) Third are the different locations where those abducted or kidnapped are kept incommunicado. The most dangerous are: Mile two central prisons, Jeshwang prisons, Jangjangbureh Prisons (an isolated island) where torture could include being exposed to mosquito bites and excessive heat in dark cells. Within the NIA premises also are dark dungeons like the Bambadinka–meaning the crocodile’s hole.

These three scary names are the pillars of President Jammeh’s regime of brutality. This is exactly why journalists like Ebrima Manneh are helpless and vulnerable. No single person can ever determine where detainees are kept with precision because the regime’s tactics includes transferring detainees from one undisclosed location to another only to escape inquiries from family members of the affected parties.

Refusing detainees access to legal representation and or visits from family members is definitely not uncommon in The Gambia today. The Jammeh regime exercises its strength by showing the detained and the family of the detained that absolute power lies in its hands but not within the hands of the judiciary. Court orders are not respected because re-arresting people who have been freed by a judge just outside the premises of the court house has been part of the regime’s merciless reactions during the past years. Indeed the above cannot be part of the modus operandi of a democratic regime. Therefore any regime which practices what is referenced here above is one that has no respect for the rule of law. That is why Gambians are scattered all over the world as asylees or refugees. Our country’s population is one of the smallest in Africa, however, the number of Gambians on exile is on top of the list in the continent. That certainly should be a cause for concern.

The recent report of Amnesty International entitled Gambia: Fear Rules speaks for itself. This same vein is the reason why six senators from the US senator on foreign relations signed a petition calling on the Gambian president to release Chief Ebrima Manneh. These are respected institutions who have no interest in staining the Jammeh regime for political reasons or any other one for that matter. Veterans like Senator Ted Kennedy are of course not into this for making names or controlling anything political. They are in it because what affects human life in The Gambia or any other part of the world attracts the attention of responsible leaders like the latter. President Jammeh’s legacy has already been stained like that of Idi Amin Dada and other former blood thirsty dictators. Along the way he will face his fate because international laws supersede the local Gambian laws he is manipulating to help maintain his ruthless regime.