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(New York) - Jordan's prison administration has broken promises to improve the treatment of prisoners, most recently in denying water to 10 Islamist prisoners in Juwaida prison who began a hunger strike on August 18, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities have turned off the hunger strikers' water taps, placed them in solitary confinement, and prevented visits from their families, Human Rights Watch said. Jordanian officials in May said they no longer denied water to hunger strikers. Prison officials have also broken other promises to improve treatment of prisoners and conditions in detention, Human Rights Watch said.

"Every prisoner has a right to choose whether to eat and drink," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The prison authorities make verbal promises about humane treatment, but nothing changes for prisoners."

In May, the head of the prison service, Brig. Gen. Sharif al-‘Umari, told Human Rights Watch that he had changed prison service policy to allow prisoners on hunger strike access to water. Nevertheless, the authorities in Juwaida prison placed the hunger strikers this week in solitary confinement cells and switched off their water tap on Tuesday night and again on Thursday night and refused at least one prisoner's request for water.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that, "Drinking water shall be available to every prisoner whenever he needs it." Denying drinking water to prisoners can amount to cruel and degrading punishment, and can even lead to death, Human Rights Watch said.

Other promises of prison reform appear to have been broken, too. Al-'Umari told Human Rights Watch in 2008 that prison authorities would no longer use castor oil as a laxative to flush out any drugs or weapons arriving inmates may have ingested to smuggle contraband into prison. Inmates on hunger strike say that Juwaida prison authorities still use castor oil and that the solitary confinement cells bear the stench of diarrhea. In a May 2009 report, "Guests of the Governor," Human Rights Watch described how newly arriving inmates under the old policy were forced to swallow up to eight castor oil pills and sit naked on buckets to await the rapid onset of violent diarrhea, leaving some of them extremely weak for days.

Maj. Muhammad al-Khatib, spokesman for the Public Security Directorate, which runs the prisons, denied the allegations and told Human Rights Watch on August 21 that all hunger strikers were receiving water, and that castor oil was not being used any longer.

The current hunger strikers are protesting what an emailed communiqué from prisoners' relatives to Human Rights Watch on August 18 described as the small size of their cells, which hold three or four prisoners and are uncomfortably hot in the summer, as well as unpalatable food, short visiting times, seizure of their books and personal belongings, and the absence of a mosque and an exercise area.

The Jordanian prison service says that, among the achievements of its prison reform program since 2006, it has built libraries and sports grounds and has improved visiting facilities in prisons across Jordan. In 2008, the prison service said it would close Juwaida, the oldest prison, and was planning to build several other prisons to ease overcrowding, but these plans remain far behind schedule.

Islamist prisoners in Juwaida are kept in a separate wing and are not allowed to exercise with others, even fellow Islamist prisoners, and spend all of their time, including exercise time, with their two or three cellmates in small-group isolation. Human Rights Watch's investigation into this type of detention in Turkey in 1999 revealed that prisoners were suffering depression, anxiety, and deteriorating eyesight, physical and psychological symptoms recorded elsewhere as an effect of small-group isolation.

"Jordan has broken its promises on prison reform even on easy-to-fix issues like providing drinking water, stopping the castor oil treatment, and ending isolation," said Stork. "The treatment appears as inhumane as ever."

The 10 hunger-striking prisoners were transferred from Swaqa prison to Juwaida prison in January. Human Rights Watch received credible allegations at that time from family members of three inmates that they had been severely beaten in Swaqa. At that time, Human Rights Watch privately discussed its concerns about the treatment in Swaqa with officials and was promised that there would be an investigation. The investigation, conducted by police officials, absolved prison guards of all wrongdoing, saying forensic exams conducted later did not show definite signs of beatings.

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