Punished and killed for being poor
On 23 August 2020, at Farafangana prison in the south-east of the island, taking advantage of the unusual absence of several guards (there were three guards on duty instead of the usual seven), the prisoners staged a revolt.
88 of the 336 prisoners managed to escape, after breaking down part of a perimeter wall that was in a poor state of repair.
48 of the escapees were caught the same day and 17 are still on the run (as of 30 October 2020). 23 inmates were killed as the law enforcement forces chased them down. More than 70% of those killed were awaiting trial. Six had been convicted. 17 were still only being held on remand.
Two investigations have been opened: one is being led by the Ministry of Justice, the other by Farafangana Crime Squad.
The ministry concerned has remained quiet about the incident. Information regarding the killed prisoners is being released little by little. Their names, ages and the reasons for their detention are being kept secret.
The whole affair is clearly disturbing. And must be kept quiet. “Don’t talk.” The social workers authorized to enter the prison have been ordered not to comment on or give interviews about the uprising.
As a homage to the prisoners who were killed, Amnesty International went to the prison to put together a portrait of four of the young men who brutally lost their lives on 23 August.
Vevetsy, the prison mascot
His name was Jenetsy. But everyone - his family friends and fellow inmates - called him Vevetsy. He had grown up in the bush and loved wide open spaces.
His exact date of birth is not known, but he was born around 1993 in the village of Tanambao, in the rural commune of Vohiboreka, 140 km from Farafangana. He has five brothers and sisters. At school, he was hard-working. He completed his primary education and left school in Year 5 as his parents needed his help to work their land.
Together with his brother Germain, who was three years his senior, they worked on the family plots and kept zebus. But Vevetsy dreamed of a different future. He wanted to escape that poverty and leave behind that life of drudgery.
In 2016, Vevetsy was around 23 years old. Someone offered him and his brother a job transporting some luggage, which is a common practice in rural areas. For 50,000 ariaries (€10) each - a fortune for those lads - the two brothers agreed to go to Agnara, a village a few kilometres from theirs, to collect and transport two bags.
They were to pay dearly for their naivety... or their complicity; nobody knows. The two canvas bags contained human remains. On 18 January 2016, Vevetsy and Germain were arrested as they were boarding a bush taxi and were immediately incarcerated at Farafangana prison.
On 18 September 2017, more than a year and a half later, the two brothers were tried by the Ordinary Criminal Court and convicted of “desecration of a place of burial and theft of human remains” and sentenced to hard labour for life.
That was the start of a new kind of existence for Vevetsy, where his life was limited to the earthen yard of the prison and Cell No. 2, which he shared with some 40 other inmates.
During four and a half years of detention, Vevetsy always denied to the guards and his fellow inmates that he had stolen the human remains. He constantly complained about his conviction as well as the delay, following the appeal, in the publication of the cassation ruling. But he tried to make the most of this new life deprived of liberty.
Vevetsy put on a brave face. Always smiling and very sociable, he was liked by both his comrades in misfortune and the prison guards. “He was an akama, a mate”, says one of the guards. He was “manala gadra, a playful inmate”, he continues. “He made the other prisoners feel good.” With his cabosse guitar, he sang traditional Betsileo songs and danced kilalaky. The other inmates would pay him for his little shows that brightened their hearts. The teachers and members of the prison administration admired his good behaviour and allowed him to set up a small business. Resourceful, Vevetsy ran a little grocery store, selling biscuits, sugar, oil, cigarettes, rice and charcoal. With this business and his regular income flow, he was able to live comfortably. In the outside world, his father made great sacrifices for him and Germain.
Over the four years, to pay the prison guards to visit his sons - which should normally be free - he sold his seven zebus, leaving him without any livestock. Today, Vevetsy’s father is a ruined man; according to relatives, he has accumulated 2 million ariaries (€ 430) of debt.
The two brothers paid a court clerk, Ms G, to file an appeal to reverse their conviction. They never heard back about a possible new trial.
In the morning of 23 August 2020, a revolt took place and 88 inmates escaped. Vevetsy was one of them. His body was found 300 metres from the prison, in a pool of seawater, with a bullet in his head.
We don’t understand why he tried to escape. He seemed to have settled into this life. We were very surprised to find out that he was one of the escapees.
Until his body can be returned to his home village, it has been buried in the common grave at Farafangana.
Razakaboana, the loner
His name was Razakaboana. He was from the commune of Etrotroka in the district of Farafangana. He was around 25 years old, always looked unhappy and had a strange green tattoo between his eyes. He was melancholic, withdrawn and hated being a prisoner.
He entered the prison in November 2019, accused of a murder that he consistently denied. A loner, he never played football with the other prisoners. He didn’t sing. He didn’t talk. He would do whatever he could to avoid any kind of argument with the other residents of Cell No. 1. The only people he would talk to were the prison staff. “He was only interested in one thing: his trial date. He was fixated on it. He would constantly ask us for information. He didn’t understand why no one could tell him when it would be.” His light-skinned face was marked by an immense pain - almost as indelible as his tattoo - which he didn’t even try to mask.
It was only after visits from his parents, his sisters and his five-year-old daughter that he would feel better equipped to deal with the uncertainty of his situation. But Covid took a toll on his morale. Visits were banned and he wasn’t one of the families that managed to bribe the guards to give them a few minutes of precious conversation.
Utterly dejected, he was convinced that the virus was an intervention by the State to stop visits and all he had to focus on was his trial. Time was suspended until a date that was never confirmed.
On 23 August 2020, he saw his salvation in the breakout. He tried to escape with his fellow inmates. His corpse was found that same evening, in the district of Anosynakoho, shot through with bullets.
His name was Ralista. He was a well-known farmer who produced rice and cassava; he loved the land and his work. In his free time, he enjoyed river fishing. He was 25 years old and had three children.
November 2019. The hut of the school teacher in the village next to the village where Ralista lived was burgled. The teacher’s mobile phone was stolen. In this region, tradition dictates that in order to preserve the social order, the fokon’olona (or village community) clubs together to indemnify the victim. The sum usually set is 100,000 ariaries (€22).
But the teacher did not agree to this and demanded that the villagers from his and the neighbouring villages pay him the sum of 3 million ariaries (€650) within a month. That was a fortune for peasant farmers who earn less than 2,000 ariaries a day. It was impossible for them to raise so much money.
In early December, the frustrated teacher went to the police station and accused two villagers of stealing his telephone. One of them was Ralista. He and the other accused were immediately arrested at their homes in Bekaraoky Sud then transferred to Farafangana prison.
During his months in detention, Ralista saw little of his family. Travelling into town is expensive and the guards charged his family at least 500 ariaries for each visit. During the pandemic, those rates increased considerably: 10,000 ariaries to see relatives in the visiting room. His family couldn’t afford it. The last person Ralista saw was his wife. That was in March. The strapping young man put on a brave face and seemed optimistic. She had promised to go back the following month with one of their children.
His uncle Charles regularly took him rice, although he never saw him. “I preferred to take him 10,000 ariaries of rice rather than pay half of that amount to the guards and give him less rice. Had we had more money, we would definitely have visited him more often. But we didn’t have the means to. When he was taken away, life became very difficult for us. He had been the main breadwinner in the family.”
Ralista’s mother, Babao, was planning to visit her son on the Sunday of the breakout “because that Sunday we knew that it was a kind guard who was on duty and that he didn’t ask for backhanders for visits”. However, she had been unable to get any money to take to her son.
I couldn’t go empty-handed so at the last minute I decided to cancel my visit.
On Sunday 23 August, no one in the village was informed of the escape. It was not until the Monday morning that one of the neighbours heard on the radio that there had been a revolt and that numerous prisoners had been killed. Ralista’s uncle set off for the town, 17 km away, to find out if his nephew was one of the victims. At the morgue, he was told that Ralista had died and that his body was ready to be taken away. His uncle hired a vehicle for 100,000 ariaries to transport the corpse.
When he arrived back in the village and the cloth that the body was wrapped in was removed, the family realized that it wasn’t Ralista. Even though the corpse was in a bad shape the family was positive: Ralista had certain distinctive features as he had become blind in one eye following a farming accident, he no longer had any incisor teeth and was missing the nails on eight of his ten toes. The body in their garden was not Ralista’s. There had been an identification error...
Ralista’s uncle called the prison administration to report the problem. He was told to bury the body in the village anyway; if the family of the “unknown deceased” were to come forward, the body would be taken to their village.
Ralista’s uncle and mother went back to Farafangana to try to find his body. Eventually, they found it in the town’s common grave. The family paid for another vehicle to take Ralista’s body home. But while the body was being removed from the grave, the dishonest driver disappeared with their money. As a last resort, they hired a handcart and someone to pull it, to take the body to their village.
Ralista, “who didn’t go to church but got on well with everyone, always had something to laugh about, and hated alcohol and brawls, died for nothing”, laments Gégé, his childhood friend.
None of that should have happened
His family deplores the unfounded accusation and the excessive influence that an educated civil servant can have over the police. The teacher has since moved to Farafangana but, on Saturdays, still comes to preach the gospel in the sect he created in the village.
Ralista died from a bullet wound. He had a large red hole in his right side. He was never tried.
Since then, the two oldest children have had to stop going to school as the family can no longer afford to send them.
His name was Razafimahaleo. He used to grow cassava on a family plot and never went to school. He was around 20 years old, had one gold tooth and loved singing liturgical songs. He had just become a dad.
On the night of 2 November 2019, in Vohilava, a peasant farmer called Gérole was killed. A few kilometres away, in Anapoaka, Razafimahaleo was performing his guard duty for Kalony, a village organization made up of around 20 young men that provides security against zebu thieves for the villages.
In the morning, rumours started circulating that Razafimahaleo might be linked to the killing. To stop the rumours and fearing that his grandson might run away, Koto, Razafimahaleo’s grandfather, took him to the police station in Anosivelo to clarify the facts. The police officers advised Koto to go to Farafangana, to the office of the Crime Squad. They travelled the 23 km on foot.
In the town, the police officers decided to keep the young man in custody. The 48 hour time limit provided for by law ran over, with Razafimahaleo being held in a police cell for 15 days, before finally being transferred to Farafangana prison for murder.
Razafimahaleo’s colleagues, who had done the patrol with him on the night of the murder, were called as witnesses. They all confirmed that they had all being together that night, including Razafimahaleo, and had not gone to the village of Vohilava, which was too far from the area they were guarding.
Gérole and Razafimahaleo didn’t know each other. The victim’s family never filed a complaint or accused Razafimahaleo of committing the murder.
Razafimahaleo’s family took turns to visit him at the prison once a month. Too poor to take the bus, they would complete the 23-km journey on foot. At the prison, like so many other families, they had to pay ‘fees’ to the guards: 500 to leave him some food; 5,000 ariaries to see him in the visiting room.
Razafimahaleo’s imprisonment, which dragged on with no trial date forthcoming, put a real strain on everyone. One the one hand, his whole family made sacrifices to be able to keep him fed. The rice and vegetables they took to Razafimahaleo were his only pleasure during his first five months in detention. On each visit, his relatives noted how his morale was steadily declining. Once big and well-built, he became a shadow of himself. Insisting on his innocence, he didn’t understand what was happening to him. He asked to see a photo of his son. And each month he was left disappointed, as his family couldn’t afford to have a photo taken, let alone get it printed.
From March, coronavirus put an end to prison visits. Razafimahaleo would not see his family again.
On Sunday 23 August, as he was leaving church, Razafimahaleo’s grandfather, Koto, received a phone call, giving him the news that there had been a breakout at the prison and some of the escapees had been killed.
The next day, he went to the morgue, but his grandson’s body wasn’t there. To make sure Razafimahaleo was alive, Koto then went to the prison to ask if he was there. A call was put out while he waited; Razafimahaleo didn’t answer. Disconcerted, he returned home.
The next day, the names of the victims were read out on the radio. Koto distinctly heard Razafimahaleo’s name. So he went back to Farafangana with his son-in-law to try and find their boy’s body. They were informed that he had been buried in the common grave. They set about digging out a body that they had been told was Razafimahaleo. But once they had removed the corpse from the ground, the two men realized that it was not the right one. That afternoon, they dug up no fewer than 14 bodies. But it was all in vain. Night fell and they had a four-hour walk home ahead of them. They arrived back at the village in a daze.
On the Wednesday, Koto received a call from the prison administration. He was informed that his grandson had been buried in Bekaraoky, 30 km from where they live. The body had been transported by another family, by mistake, following a misidentification.
An expedition was organized to go and collect Razafimahaleo’s body. The older people gave themselves the luxury of a bush taxi. The others walked. At the village of Bekaraoky, Razafimahaleo’s family were certain they had finally found his body. Despite the state of decomposition of the body and the impacts of the bullets that had left it disfigured, there was no mistaking his gold tooth. Ten men and four women took turns carrying the body on their backs to the home village of the young man’s father.
Razafimahaleo could not be buried in the family grave. In the tradition of the Antaifasy ethnic group, prisoners (whether they have been convicted or not) cannot be buried in the grave unless their family pay 1 million ariaries to the ampanjaka, the regional aristocracy.
As the family knew it would never be able to raise that amount of money, it had to mourn doubly: for having lost a loved one under such terrible circumstances, and for Razafimahaleo not being allowed to one day achieve the status of ancestors.
For years, in Madagascar, Amnesty International and other local actors have been calling out the inhuman living conditions that are widespread in Malagasy prisons. Overcrowding due to prolonged pre-trial detentions, delayed trials, a severe lack of resources for prisons, disrepair and insalubrity of buildings, understaffing... All these factors weigh down on inmates and pose a very serious security problem.
In recent years, NGOs have been consistently demanding that “the prison problem” be made a priority of the government. Their efforts have been in vain.
Amnesty International has been campaigning since 2017 calling the authorities of Madagascar to address the country’s excessive, abusive and prolonged use of pre-trial detention, which has led to a situation of severe overcrowding and life-threatening conditions of detention. Our investigations have highlighted that Madagascar’s abusive pre-trial detention disproportionately affects men, women and children who are poor, not least because they cannot afford their own legal representation.
Despite our repeated calls to the Malagasy authorities to urgently address this pre-trial detention crisis, to date, more than half of the country’s detainees have not had a trial. Amnesty International will continue to campaign for fair trial rights in Madagascar, under the hashtag #ItCouldBeYou