On May 2, 2013, North Korea sentenced a Korean-American tour operator to 15 years' hard labor for "attempting to "topple the DPRK."
Despite the nation's secrecy, its prison camps are notorious for human rights violations.
Out of all the camps within the system, Camp 22 might be the worst. Entire families, political prisoners, are held their for life. Prisoners at this maximum facility are often malnourished, maimed, deformed, diseased and worse.
Essentially performing slave labor seven days a week for more than 12 hours a day, inmates are literally worked to death, and one former guard estimated that up to 2,000 people, including children, die every year at this camp alone.
In October, 2012, two members of the band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were transferred from their jail cells in Moscow to Russia's notoriously severe penal colonies. The members were arrested and sentenced to two years prison after the punk rock group ran afoul of Russian authorities earlier this year. They were charged with hooliganism following their performance in front of Cathedral of Christ the Savior of a song entitled Virgin Mary, which called for the ousting of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
As the Daily Beast's Anna Nemtsova explains, the two women will be making a big adjustment from their cells in Moscow, forced to cope with extreme cold, cramped conditions and worse at the penal colonies they've been sent to.
The surroundings may seem serene, but the ADX Florence Supermax in Colorado might be one of the worst prisons to find yourself as an inmate in the entire country.
The facility is the largest and most infamous of the 31 so-called supermax jails in the United States, detention centers with the tightest controls to house the most dangerous inmates. It is also the only federal supermax prison in the country, as noted by ABC News.
Inmates spend more than 22 hours a day in small cells with little or no sunlight in solitary for years at a time. The isolation can lead prisoners to break down psychologically.
Dubbed the Bangkok Hilton, Bang Kwang Central Prison in Thailand is one of the most notorious prisons on Earth. Every prisoner within Bang Kwang walls has been sentenced to at least 25 years behind bars.
An overcrowded facility, the Thai people call the prison the "Big Tiger," according to BBC News, due to the sheer number of executions that take place at the facility. Around 10 percent of the inmates in the facility are on death row.
Prisoners are kept in chains for at least their first three months in jail. Those on death row spend their entire prison terms in irons.
The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, might be the most controversial prison on this list.
Known to house terrorists and enemy combatants from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prison was meant to contain some of the most dangerous threats to U.S. security interests. Instead, the facility has become internationally synonymous with physical and psychological torture.
Unlike many other prisons on this list, this facility is administered by the military instead of civilian authorities.
Located in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Carandiru Penitentiary was closed in 2002 due to its reputation for brutality, echoed in the 2003 Brazilian film of the same name.
During its time, the facility housed some of the country's most violent criminals and had an extensive record for human rights violations. Around 1/5 of the inmates before the prison closed were HIV-positive, and medical care available to inmates was virtually non-existent.
The most famous incident at the prison occurred in 1992 when a riot led to the deaths of 111 inmates, most of whom were killed by police.
At The Hague, protestors demonstrate against human rights violations at Diyarbakir prison in Turkey. The efforts of these and other activists have proven successful, with the facility planned to be converted to a Museum of Shame, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Even with its transformation, however, the prison is a symbol of torture and political repression. The overcrowded facility housed mostly Kurdish political prisoners who were methodically humiliated, tortured and worse.
With some 25,000 kept at La Sabaneta, Venezuela, and a prisoner-to-guard ratio of around 1-to-150, it should come as no surprise that the prison is one of the most violent in South America. The worst episode of violence occurred in 1994 when around 130 inmates were burned or hacked to death with machetes, according to TIME.com.
Although closed in 2001, Tadmor Prison in Syria was re-opened in 2011. Located in the middle of the desert, Tadmor was infamous for human rights violations and made no distinction between inmates held for political reasons versus those who actually committed crimes.
The worst incident at the facility took place in 1980, when Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, along with defense forces entered the prison and killed some 1,000 inmates.
The Gitarama region in Rwanda, seen here, is an area with a horrific history, and houses one of the most gruesome prisons on Earth. The prison in Gitarama City can house up to 20 times as many inmates as the facility was designed to hold. The overcrowded conditions have led prisoners driven by starvation to extremes, including cannibalism, to stay alive.
An Asian couple from Los Angeles with adopted African children are on trial in Qatar, accused of starving their daughter Gloria to death in order to sell her organs.
According to an article in The New York Times:
“Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple with three adopted children from Africa, lived as a family in the affluent Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar starting in July 2012. For most of the time since then, the parents have been imprisoned there, accused of starving their 8-year-old daughter to death with the intent of selling her organs…. The Qatar police investigators, in their report of Gloria’s death, found the family’s circumstances highly suspicious, and wrote that the girl had been emaciated. The defendants, they concluded in an investigation, ‘participated with others in child trafficking, most likely to either sell their organs or to conduct medical experiments on them.’”
The couple was freed last week on bail.
This claim and situation is bizarre, it’s not unheard of. Folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent, one of the world’s top authorities on the subject, notes in her book “Organ Theft Legends” that in some versions of this urban legend “the scenario is of pseudo-adoptions, in which children left poor countries only to die upon operating tables, not to be welcomed into loving families; it is commonly referred to as the Baby Parts Story, since organs taken from these children were allegedly used as ‘spare parts’ in transplants.”
Indeed, the prosecutor’s accusations against the Huangs fits this narrative perfectly: A wealthy American couple adopts children from the poor West African country of Ghana only to kill one of them for her organs. Cultural misunderstandings may have played a role in the accusations; mixed-race families and adoptions are virtually unknown in Qatar.
One does not need to be a medical expert or a folklorist to see why at least some of the charges against the Huangs are absurd on their face. The couple may or may not be culpable for their daughter’s starvation death (Gloria had been raised severely malnourished and treated for both intestinal parasites and an anorexia-like eating disorder), but the claim that she was murdered so that her parents could harvest and sell her organs is clearly groundless.
By starving their daughter to death they would be damaging the very organs they are supposedly trying to sell. Starvation can lead to failure of the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart and other vital organs. If some evil person truly wanted to take little Gloria’s organs, her death would have been quick and done under medical supervision so that the organs could be retrieved immediately. In the hours between the time the Huangs discovered their daughter in her room on Jan. 15 and the time she later died at a hospital, most of her organs would have become unusable.
Though organ sales do occur, there is no evidence of an organized black market in stolen organs, and in fact it would be nearly impossible to conceal an entire organ-snatching ring.
Sophisticated medical equipment must be used, and donors and recipients must be carefully matched. Blood and tissue typing must be done in advance. The operation would take between four and six hours and involve 10 to 20 support staff. Highly paid surgeons and medical staff are unlikely to risk performing such unethical and illegal operations, thus jeopardizing both their licenses and their reputations.
Still, such claims and rumors surface now and then. In May of this year, a British family on vacation in India accused workers in a clinic there of killing their 8-year-old daughter, Gurkiren Kaur Loyal, so that her organs could be harvested.
Dangers of Legends
Like most urban legends, the “baby parts” story doesn’t need to be true for it to have very real — and potentially dangerous — consequences. Organ donations have dropped in some areas where the rumors spread. In many poor areas, such as in the slums surrounding Brazil’s major cities including Rio de Janiero, residents avoid hospitals out of fear that their organs may be taken if they are sedated. The results can be tragic since the poor are frequently those who need medical services the most.
Historically these organ theft accusations have often been leveled for political reasons. Investigator Todd Leventhal of the U.S. Information Agency (part of the State Department) noted in a 1988 report that during the Cold War the Russian intelligence agency KGB actively encouraged and circulated rumors about Americans abducting and killing children for their organs. As Campion-Vincent notes, “If any undeniable facts about organ thefts were established, they would become a major news item. They would be treated as such, making the front page of the daily papers and the lead item on the TV news.”
Still, two Americans are on trial based at least in part upon what is clearly a myth.
Last week a judge released the Huangs pending trial, but they are not allowed to leave the country. Their next scheduled hearing is Dec. 3.