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Political Prisoners Continue Fast, Human Rights Team Wants Amnesty

March 18, 1991

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Political prisoners pardoned but not released from jail kept up a hunger strike today, and some threatened to set themselves on fire if they are not freed by Tuesday, a human rights group said.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights - the first Western group of its kind to visit Communist Albania - also told of harsh prison conditions. It said some inmates had lost eyes and fingers to torture, and that others sick with cancer and other diseases went without treatment.

The group demanded an amnesty for all prisoners held in such conditions.

Albania’s Parliament pardoned 175 political prisoners on March 12 ahead of the country’s first free elections in six decades, set for March 31.

Authorities freed 123 of the prisoners Sunday, then said they had fulfilled the government’s obligations to release political prisoners. They gave no reason for why the remaining 52 inmates who also were pardoned were not freed.

Members of the Helsinki group said 26 of those prisoners, held in the dreaded Burrel labor camp 35 miles northeast of Tirana, had entered the second day of a hunger strike. They said the prisoners threatened to set themselves and the jail on fire if they were not freed by Tuesday morning.

Another 20 prisoners in Lushnja jail, 50 miles south of Tirana, were in revolt and also fasting, opposition members said.

A nine-member delegation of the Helsinki group recently visited four jails and urged the Tirana government to free all prisoners.

In addition to those who were pardoned, there are believed to be several hundred more who were charged as criminals but actually jailed for political activities, human rights and opposition activists say.

They say hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who opposed communism died in Albania’s jails during 46 years of Stalinist rule.

Albania was tightly controlled by hard-line leader Enver Hoxha until his death in April 1985. Only in recent months has the government begun to dismantle its hard-line policies and move toward reforms.

Many Albanians demanding greater freedom have clashed with police, and 20,000 recently fled in ferries to Italy across the Adriatic Sea.

Christine von Kohl, one member of the Helsinki delegation, said hundreds of political prisoners were still interned as common criminals in ″sheerly indescribable″ conditions.

Prisoners at the jail in Saranda had given the visitors a list of 615 inmates who had been tortured in solitary confinement from 1982 to 1985, said Freda Meissner-Blau, another member of the delegation.

Ms. von Kohl told reporters she had seen torture victims with missing fingers, hands and eyes in Saranda. Some prisoners suffered from paralysis and untreated diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis, she said.

Although severe torture was reportedly stopped two years ago, prisoners’ food rations still only amount to about 500 calories a day, she said.

″I think it would be more correct to talk of animal rights rather than human rights - it’s unbelievable how prisoners are treated,″ she said.

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