Nearly 1,000 Muslim Rohingyas, including women and children as young as ten, remain incarcerated in northern Arakan state – accused of inciting sectarian clashes last year – where campaigners say they are subject to "pervasive" abuses and at least 68 people are believed to have died in custody.
New data obtained by DVB shows that torture and violence, including the sexual exploitation of minors, is widespread throughout prisons in northern Arakan state, where at least 966 Rohingyas have been detained since November last year. At least 10 women and 72 children, aged between 10 and 15 years old, are understood to be among the prisoners.
An estimated 1,600 Rohingyas were initially arrested in northern Arakan state after two bouts of sectarian clashes with local Buddhists, although many were later released after paying bribes "as high as 20 million kyats (USD$23,350)" to local officials, Chris Lewa from the Arakan Project told DVB. Some of the prisoners were initially held together with Buddhists, where they faced regular beatings – often with the support of authorities.
"Every day a group of 10 to 15 new prisoners were taken out of their ward and beaten by jail police and Rakhine [Arakanese] prisoners," said a 70-year-old former inmate in Buthidaung jail, who was initially sentenced to five years, but later released. "Elderly Muslim prisoners, including me, were ordered to put the dead bodies into sacks and leave them at the jail gate. The dead bodies were taken away at night."
Sixty-two deaths were recorded in Buthidaung jail alone, where prisoners also reported being forced to shower naked in public and routinely subjected to torture and sexual humiliation.
"Many [new inmates] had no clothes and it was clear that many had been badly tortured before their arrival in Buthidaung jail," another former inmate said. "Some had broken bones; others knife injuries – some with cuts on their head and some on other parts of their body."
The figures seen by DVB roughly correspond with government statistics released in December, which suggested that 849 Bengalis – the term officially used for the stateless Rohingya – were among the 1,121 people detained for their role in last year's violence, which displaced over 125,000 people. Some 233 Arakanese were also in detention at the time, although many have since been released.
Aye Maung, who was recently released from Sittwe jail along with nine other Buddhists accused of burning down a Muslim village, told DVB that 85 percent of the remaining 200 prisoners were Rohingya. He added that Arakanese inmates were treated as they would have been back in the "junta times" unless they "complained" about their conditions. But he insisted that Buddhists and Muslims were kept separately and "there were no problems" between the communities.
"Speaking to Rakhine in Sittwe, civil society groups have put a lot of pressure on the authorities to release them," said Lewa. "They even said it was unjust that they had been arrested, that it was the Rohingya that set fire to their own houses. It seems to confirm that the Rakhine can get out a lot easier than the Rohingya."
Roughly 800,000 Muslim Rohingya live in northwestern Burma, where they are viewed as illegal Bengali immigrants and denied basic rights, including citizenship. The state government was accused of siding with the Buddhist Arakanese in last year's clashes.
Many of the detained Arakanese have been charged with lesser offences, including breaching the curfew imposed by the president in June, which usually carries sentences of less than six months. But most of the Rohingya have been targeted with draconian sections of Burma's penal code, which carry sentences of up to 13 years.
A number of prominent Muslim leaders have also been detained in what campaigners describe as an "arbitrary" campaign to silence those with connections to the international community or media.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a lawyer and former worker for Médecins Sans Frontières, was one of several aid workers arrested in June after being accused of having links to Al-Qaeda. He was released in August only after sustained pressure from the aid group and the international community.
"I am the only lawyer among the Rohingya people so they are worried that I can communicate with others and I have the political knowledge so they are afraid of me," he told DVB during a recent field visit to Sittwe.
Similarly, Dr Tun Aung, a retired doctor and Islamic community leader, was sentenced to 11 years in jail in November after "sending news abroad" and allegedly failing to notify the authorities about potential violence. He was convicted at a closed trial – and many of his witnesses reported being blocked from travelling to court to testify in his defence.
His family says they have not been allowed to visit or even speak to him over the phone since his arrest in June. His daughter, Thiri, told DVB that the entire family is "very worried about his health" and fear that the 65-year-old has been tortured.
"This is by far one of the worst examples, where freedom of all forms – professional freedom, freedom of expression and the rights of a person who is charged with a crime – have been violated by the state authorities in Burma," said Bijo Francis from the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has recently resumed prison visits in the former pariah state, which is eventually expected to include Arakan state, but a spokesperson admitted that they will "not question the reasons for arrests" and none of their findings will be made publicly available.
Lewa further warned that a number of inmates in northern Arakan state had been threatened not to speak to the ICRC or risk being killed.
President Thein Sein's government has been credited for introducing dramatic democratic reforms in Burma, including freeing political prisoners and easing media restrictions. On Thursday, state media announced the formation of a commission to investigate how many political prisoners remain in Burma, but rights groups have raised questions over its independence and scope. The government declined to comment on the allegations in this report.
-Min Lwin contributed additional reporting.