The Human Rights Commission of Maldives has assured an investigation into a hunger strike by inmates at the high-security prison on the island of Maafushi in Malé atoll.
Shifaq Mufeed, the HRCM’s vice president, told the press on Monday that the watchdog was told by the commissioner of prisons that the hunger strike was prompted by “tightened security measures”.
However, despite confirmation from the human rights watchdog, the spokesman of the Maldives Correctional Services denied reports of the hunger strike.
“Such an incident did not take place and we have no information about it,” MCS Information Officer Ahmed Luqman told the Maldives Independent on Tuesday.
But Mufeed told reporters that inmates refused to eat one meal of the day after the prisons authority took steps to stop the illegal use of mobile phones.
“The electric wires in the jail cells were covered with metal pipes and the prisoners could no longer charge their mobile phones,” he said at a press conference held to release the commission’s 2016 annual report.
“So the strike was staged due to that discontentment.”
An investigative team from the watchdog will look into the incident during their next visit to the Maafushi prison, he added.
The HRCM team will talk to individual inmates without the presence of prison guards, Mufeed said, assuring that the situation in the jail is relatively calm.
An informed source told the Maldives Independent that the hunger strike was staged after “some inmates were forced to give up their pillows and mats” when they were transferred to a different unit.
“On Friday night, some inmates were transferred to another unit and their pillows were taken to check if they were hiding mobile phones,” the source said.
“So they demanded the pillows to be returned, but at around 12:30 that night, electricity was cut off and some of the inmates were taken out and beaten up. The next morning they avoided food and again some of them were beaten.”
According to Raajje TV, some 70 inmates went on strike Saturday morning in protest against poor facilities and difficulties in receiving medical care.
The MCS media official told the station on Saturday that inmates in the maximum-security unit were expressing anger, but dismissed reports of a hunger strike.
Raajje TV’s sources also alleged that several inmates were beaten and electricity was cut off for some cells.
According to the HRCM’s annual report, 18 visits were made last year “to detention facilities to monitor the rights situation of inmates”.
Some 10 complaints of “brutal treatment during arrest” and 21 cases of torture in custody were filed with the commission.
In August last year, the watchdog cleared police officers and prison guards of torture claims in the 65 cases it investigated.
The commission is obliged by the 2013 Anti-Torture Act to investigate allegations of torture and publish an annual report on its findings. The first report was published in 2015.
According to the 2016 annual report, the watchdog concluded investigations into 309 out of 553 human rights violations reported during the year, including 138 complaints related to the lack of adequate housing, 68 related to health services, 64 concerning the rights of inmates and 50 concerning child rights.
The commission cited “lack of cooperation from institutions and individuals” as one of the main obstacles to investigating complaints.
At Monday’s press conference, Mufeed called on the parliament to expedite work on the new Child Rights Act.
“The bill has not been forwarded to us yet. We saw a draft bill earlier, but we were told that the People’s Majlis is still in the process of drafting a new bill,” he said, noting that the existing law is outdated.
The commission said it also closely monitored major incidents that occurred during 2016, including the death of an infant under state care.
“We monitored the situation of those affected by the fire in Coastline Hardware and assessed the situation in Gaaf Dhaal Thinadhoo in the aftermath of the islandwide power outage following a fire at the powerhouse in January 2016,” the report stated.
The commission also carried out awareness programmes for 4,607 people and conducted the ‘Right to Reproductive and Sexual Health Education’ survey.
“Four bills and 10 government policies were reviewed from a human rights perspective and concerns were shared with relevant institutions,” it added.
Last year, Mufeed insisted that an 11-point guideline imposed on the commission by the supreme court has not hampered its functioning.
But the HRCM’s annual report for 2015 had stated that the supreme court’s criminal case against the commission was the “biggest challenge” it has faced.
Mufeed, a former ruling party lawmaker, was appointed to the five-member commission along with four others in late 2015 to replace outgoing commissioners.
President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has been accused of comprising the independence of state institutions after using the ruling coalition’s parliamentary majority to stack watchdog bodies with loyalists.