Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Steal $1, get jailed for 7 years

If you thought Guantanamo Bay is a haven for prisoner abuse, think again. Compared to Mongolia, Gitmo is Chuck-E-Cheese. In Mong-land even lawyers assisting criminals are banged up with crowbars. Crime doesn't pay there, it tortures, big time.

(What follows is a story I wrote in mid-2005. It lost its newsworthiness after lagging in the editor's queue for a few days, so it was repackaged as an analysis. All those colorful, but tragic cases, in the middle of the story were edited out, so the reprint is a colorful pre-edited version. Courtesy: Open Society Institute.)

Scrutiny of Mongolian prisons reveal continued abuses

Prisoners and detainees in Mongolia are continuously abused and denied basic legal rights by Mongolian authorities despite some progress, according to a UN official who visited the landlocked country in early June to investigate the treatment of prisoners and detainees, which attracts constant criticism from human rights groups.

Amnesty International recently criticized Mongolian prison authorities for harsh treatment of prisoners and detainees, cruel and inhuman condition of cells and poor sanitary conditions. Poor medical conditions was resulting in the spread of diseases amongst prisoners, Amnesty noted in a report issued in May 2005.

Legislative reforms and an office established to legally combat such abuses has partly humanized the treatment of prisoners and detainees, though torture persists in police stations and pre-trial detention centers, observed Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Over a four day fact-finding mission to prisons and detention centers, Nowak recommended that the Mongolian government investigate such allegations and prosecute culprits in line with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment put into force by the UN in June 1987.

However, prosecuting such individuals could be difficult as there is no definition of torture in Mongolian domestic law, said Safir Syed, a UN spokesman.


Death row prisoners are especially badly treated, Nowak noted. The atrocious conditions they live in and a lack of notification to their families is tantamount to cruelty, he said. “Families are just notified when a person is sentenced to death, but not date of execution, nor do they receive body or told where it's buried,” Syed said.

Secrecy surrounding the application of the death penalty attracted concern as well, Nowak said, adding that official data about it was absent during his investigation. There isn’t any “official data of numbers [of people] sentenced to death, numbers on death row or numbers executed,” Syed said.

Death penalty data couldn’t be traced by Amnesty International either, which wrote that the number of prisoners on death row increased in 2004, attributed to media reports.

Authorities of two detention centers refused to give Nowak access to death row prisoners, Syed said.

Nowak didn’t receive cooperation from authorities at the Zuunmod Pre-trial Detention Center in Zuunmod, capital of Tuv province, and the Gants Hudag Pre-trial Detention Centre in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. Otherwise Nowak received full cooperation, he said.

Gants Hudag prison guards allegedly tortured a detainee, Munkhbayar, who died on June 3 after his release, according to Liberty Center, a human rights organization in Mongolia. Arrested on May 20, Munkhbayar was “very sick and ... throwing up blood” after his release 72 hours later, according to Liberty Center.

Some prisoners are currently serving a 30-year term in isolation, which is inhuman, said Nowak. Nowak otherwise observed an "ordinary" prison regime in line with international standards – standards lined out in the UN Minimum Standards for Treatment of Prisoners, according to Syed.

Human rights organizations seem to disagree.


Prisoners live in overcrowded cells with bad sanitary facilities and receive poor medical attention. Through 2004, close to 300 people were held in an Ulaanbaatar City Police Department holding cell that could accommodate only 120, wrote Amnesty International in its report. It also noted that tuberculosis was on the increase among prisoners, although it was denied by the Mongolian government.

Broken teeth, arthritis and a kidney disease were the fate of Erdene-Ochir, a herdsman from Zavkhan province who was mistakenly imprisoned for seven years as a murder suspect.

Though he was pronounced innocent by the Supreme Court in 2002, he was denied any poor health compensation. Erdene was later compensated Tugrik 2 million (US$1,785 as of June 19) by Amnesty International’s Sweden office. The police submitted Erdene’s case to the primary court six times in seven years, out of which he was sentenced to death three times, according to a United Nations Development Programme report published in 2003. Bureaucracy runs uncontrolled in prisons, UNDP pointed out in its report.

After a controversial newspaper interview in 2005, an imprisoned and critically sick Mongolian lawyer was threatened by prison officials to be moved to a “more crowded cell where he would face worse conditions,”according to the Amnesty International.

Lodoisambuu Sanjaasuren’s heart condition has worsened as prison authorities have provided just basic medication, not special medical treatment, wrote Amnesty International in a recent alert. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail in Nov. 2004 after being convicted of selling state secrets.

Lodoisambuu assisted murder suspect Enkhbat Damiran publicize his innocence in the 1998 murder of Zorig Sanjasuuren, a prominent Mongolian politician. Following that, both were arrested and convicted of selling state secrets.

Mongolian intelligence officials “kidnapped” Enkhbat from France in 2003, where he was allegedly drugged, kicked, pulled in his hair, and beaten by electric batons. After being “illegally” transported to Mongolia, intelligence officers “shone bright lights in his eyes and forced him to listen to the cocking and firing of a handgun,” to get him to admit to the murder, according to Amnesty International. He fell sick after being sent to Abdarant prison, near Ulaanbaatar, which has bad medical facilities, and was denied access to a lawyer and better medical facilities. Enkhbat was sentenced to 3 years in jail in Nov. 2004.


A public inquiry being carried out by Mongolia’s National Human Rights Commission to eradicate such abuses was praised by Nowak, and he recommended that the commission make visits to detention centers to prevent future torture.

A National Human Rights Action Plan was recommended to Mongolia by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Oct. 2003, which was adopted by the country in Dec. 2003.

The plan called for an improvement in prison or detention centers facilities “to meet human rights standards.” It also called for a public monitoring system of prisoners or detainees whose rights were violated to “elevate the level of their protection.” The plan also asked prisons to be opened up for public scrutiny.

During the short visit Nowak also met with Mongolian President Natsagiin Bagabandi, who on June 24 will be replaced by Nambariin Enkhbayar, winner of the presidential election held on May 22.

Nowak, appointed as a UN Special Rapporteur in Nov. 2004, will present his report to a UN Commission of Human Rights session in 2006.


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