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January 14, 2019

Famous prisoners and how they were treated in jails, painful confinements


January 14, 2019

Although dethroned Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif, currently a convicted prisoner serving a seven-year sentence at Lahore’s infamous Kot Lakhpat Jail, has complained that there was no television set in his cell, only one newspaper was being given to him and that the room heater at his disposal was malfunctioning, he should still deem himself lucky that unlike many globally-known rulers, his voice is at least being heard in real time.

Research conducted by the “Jang Group and Geo Television Network” shows that contrary to the treatment being meted out to Nawaz Sharif, some of the world’s most famous prisoners were otherwise ironically treated in jails or in painful solitary confinements. Here follow a few accounts of how Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan, kept in isolation by his son Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir from July 1658 until his death in January 1666, had spent last days of his life helplessly looking at his beloved Taj Mahal from his captivity in the Agra Fort. His legendary love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal was immortalized with the creation of Taj Mahal after her death. Research shows that Jahan Ara Begum, Mumtaz Mahal's first daughter, had voluntarily shared Shah Jahan’s eight-year confinement and nursed him during ailment.

Princess Jahan Ara had planned a state funeral which was to include a procession with Shah Jahan's body carried by eminent nobles, followed by officials scattering coins for the poor and needy. His son on throne, Aurangzeb Alamgir, had refused to accommodate such ostentation. The body of Shah Jahan was then taken to the Taj Mahal and was interred there next to the body of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. (References: UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Encyclopedia Britannica)

The last of all Moghul Emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had breathed his last helplessly in a small compartment with family in Rangoon (Burma). According to William Dalrymple’s book “The Last Mughal,” Zafar was not given even a pen to write while in captivity. He scribbled some of his last verses on the wall with a burnt stick. When former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi had visited Myanmar in 1987, this is what he had penned down in the visitor’s book placed at the Emperor’s grave: “Although you (Bahadur Shah) do not have land in India, you have it here, your name is alive… I pay homage to the memory of the symbol and rallying point of India’s first war of independence.” When the victory of the British became certain, Zafar took refuge at his great Grandfather Humayun’s tomb in Delhi but he was captured in September 1857. The next day, the Emperor’s sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan, and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr, were shot dead by the British. Severed heads of his three sons and grandson were brought before him.

Week and feeble Bahadur Shah Zafar’s trial had lasted for 41 days, had 19 hearings, 21 witnesses and over a hundred documents in Persian and Urdu, with their English translations, were produced against him in the court. Consequently, following his involvement in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British, Zafar was exiled to Rangoon in British-controlled Burma (now Myanmar).

The 82-year old King was convicted on conspiracy charges and for aiding mutiny of forces against the British Empire. Two of his wives, including wife Zeenat Mahal, two remaining sons, his grand-daughter, Raunaq Zamani, and some of the remaining members of the family accompanied him to Rangoon in October 1858 in bullock carts. The Emperor had died in November 1862 at the age of 87.

“The BBC News” had written: “Only a handful of relatives were present when Bahadur Shah Zafar II breathed his last in a shabby wooden house in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1862. That very day, his British captors buried him in an unmarked grave in a compound near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Defeated, demoralized and humiliated, it was an inglorious end for a man whose Mughal ancestors had for 300 years ruled a vast territory including modern-day India, Pakistan, large parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh. With his death, one of the world's greatest dynasties came to an end. The British buried him in an unmarked grave to keep his followers away. News of his death took a fortnight to reach India and almost went unnoticed.”

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years. Of these 27 years behind bars, he had spent 18 on Robben Island, near Cape Town city. Mandela had written in his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom” that he was neither allowed to attend the funeral of his mother, nor that of his eldest son, who had perished in a car accident. He had written: "Wounds that can't be seen are more painful than those that can be seen and cured by a doctor. One of the saddest moments of my life in prison was the death of my mother. The next shattering experience was the death of my eldest son in a car accident. I was refused permission to attend either funeral. In those early years, isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation.” "The authorities believed that isolation was the cure for our defiance and rebelliousness. I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one's own mind, which can begin to play tricks. Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it, so that the months and years blend into each other," Mandela had gone on to write. A “BBC News” report of December 11, 2013 had stated: “A warder's first words when Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades arrived were: "This is the Island. This is where you will die."

They faced a harsh regime in a new cell block constructed for political prisoners. Each had a single cell some seven foot square around a concrete courtyard, with a slop bucket. To start with, they were allowed no reading materials. They crushed stones with a hammer to make gravel and were made to work in a blindingly bright quarry digging out the limestone. Prisoner 46664, as he was known - the 466th prisoner to arrive in 1964 - would be the first to protest over ill-treatment and he would often be locked up in solitary as punishment.”

The “BBC News” had added: “Over time, and varying according to who was running the prison, so-called privileges would be granted. Those who wanted could apply for permission to study. Although some subjects such as politics and military history were forbidden, Robben Island became known as a "university behind bars". However, Mandela’s prison years had ended rather “nicely.” The “BBC News” had maintained: “The prison years ended in a cottage he had to himself in the garden of a jail near Cape Town then known as Victor Verster - with TV, radio, newspapers, a swimming pool and any visitors he wanted. But he was still in prison. And the greatest number of years that he was in prison - 18 out of 27 - were spent on Robben Island, where the contrast could not have been greater.”

Former Pakistani Premier, late Benazir Bhutto, was kept in Sukkur jai during General Ziaul Haq’s Martial Law regime. This was a period in her life when she was repeatedly kept under either house arrest or in detention. As Benazir and her party stalwarts had often recollected, her prison cell had no electricity at night and she suffered in the cold without blankets or warm clothing. On July 21, 2017, the “Friday Times” had written: “She slept on a charpoy. She lost weight as she could not eat the watery soup, tea with bread she was given. Sometimes, the prison guards offered her pumpkin or fish. Finally, unable even to try to eat the food, she stopped eating altogether. She was allowed out for three days to attend her sister Sanam’s wedding. After international pressure was mounted to release her, it was only in 1984 that she was freed to seek treatment for a severe ear infection and put on a flight to Geneva. She had been under arrest for three years by then.”

Burma’s famous lady politician and incumbent State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been detained by country’s military junta for over 15 years of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, becoming one of the world's most prominent political prisoners. The State Counsellor of Myanmar (previously Burma) is the de facto head of the government of Myanmar, equivalent to a Prime Minister. Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest in November 2010 and subsequently held a seat in parliament for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Following the NLD's victory in 2016 parliamentary elections, Suu Kyi became the de facto head of the country in the new role of state counsellor. She was imprisoned thousands of miles from her husband and children in the United Kingdom. She has rarely talked about the pain of this separation though.

The “BBC News” had quoted her saying: “One wants to be together with one's family. That's what families are about. Of course, I have regrets about that. Personal regrets. I would like to have been together with my family. I would like to have seen my sons growing up. But I don't have doubts about the fact that I had to choose to stay with my people here.” She had her last meeting with husband at Christmas of 1995. He was refused a visa after a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1997, and died two years later. In jail, she was prevented from meeting her party supporters and international visitors. In an interview, she said that while under house arrest she spent her time reading philosophy, politics and biographies that her husband had sent her. She also passed the time playing the piano, and was occasionally allowed visits from foreign diplomats as well as from her personal physician. The media was also prevented from visiting her. On several occasions during her house arrest, she had periods of poor health and as a result was hospitalized. (References: The Nobel Foundation, the Independent, the CNN and the Washington Post)

The youngest daughter of Aung San, Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has drawn criticism from several countries, organisations and figures over her alleged inaction to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims and her subsequent refusal to accept that Myanmar's military has committed all the massacres and the atrocities.

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