Good news, bad news from Burma's prisons

We’ve been calling for it for years: Burma must release all remaining political prisoners. Now, it is being suggested that they have.

The latest prisoner amnesty, announced by president Thein Sein on Monday, heralds the release of 500 prisoners later this week. Amongst them will be petty criminals and other prisoners, but “officials” are hinting that there will be a large number of political prisoners in the number as well.

We know that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma, but we don’t know how many, so it is hard to measure this claim. Amnesty is calling on the Burmese government to urgently establish a mechanism - with the assistance of the United Nations and civil society - to review the cases of all prisoners to determine the true reason for their arrest.

Still this amnesty is heartily welcomed. It’s the latest in a swathe of good news stories from Burma, so you’ve had the good news first and now comes the bad.

One of the groups of prisoners we want to be investigated to establish the reason for their arrest, are the prisoners in Rakhine state and all other ethnic minority areas.

Communal violence broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state in June and continued throughout July and  August.  Violent acts perpetrated on both sides led to deaths, injuries and destruction of property, which left 70,000 people displaced.

Amnesty is concerned about reports of mass arrests of Rohingya men, many of whom were reportedly not involved in the violence who might be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation and pre-trial detention. They should all be charged with an internationally recognised offence and given a fair trial, or released. It’s a shame to have to return to that refrain, but good news on one hand, can not preclude serious human rights concerns on the other. It will be interesting to see if Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out publically about the violence in the Rakhine state during her US trip, this week.

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