Burma: Government must go further with prisoner release

Burma experts available for interview in London and Bangkok

The release of at least 120 political prisoners in Burma today is a minimum first step, and the authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International said today.

Prisoners of conscience make up the majority of the political prisoners still jailed after the measure.

Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma Researcher, said:

“This release of political prisoners is welcome, but is not consistent with the authorities’ recent promises of political reform in Burma.

“Unless the figure rises substantially, it will constitute a relaxation of reform efforts, rather than a bold step forward”.  

Since late 2007, some 2,000 people have been imprisoned on political grounds in Burma, about half of them because of their peaceful participation in that year’s “Saffron Revolution. Among the prisoners of conscience released today are comedian Zarganar, imprisoned in June 2008 for his humanitarian efforts in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, and Zaw Htet Ko Ko, a member of the 88 Generation Student Group who was jailed in October 2007.

 In September 2009, a prisoner amnesty included 127 political prisoners.

Benjamin Zawacki, said:

“Today’s amnesty does not distinguish Burma’s new government from its previous military government.

“If Burma’s authorities are serious about demonstrating their commitment to reform, this must be only the first step towards a release of all political prisoners as soon as possible.

“They should not try them on spurious charges or hold them indefinitely.

“Releasing some political prisoners is a positive measure, but reforming Burma’s repressive judiciary and security apparatus is long overdue.”

In Burma, political prisoners are regularly charged under vaguely worded laws, mostly relating to security or public order concerns, which allow excessively broad interpretation by the authorities.  Prison conditions in Burma fall far short of international standards.  Food, water and medical care are insufficient; many political prisoners are held far away from their families and most have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement.

In his 27 September 2011 statement to the UN General Assembly, Burma’s Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin stated that the “steps taken by Burma are concrete, visible, and irreversible”. 

Amnesty called on the Burmese authorities to follow through on today’s prisoner release, by ending repression of political activism.

In the past, many political prisoners have been re-arrested shortly after being released.  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s political opposition, was released from house arrest in November 2010 after spending over 15 of the last 21 years in detention, and having been detained and released three times.

Benjamin Zawacki said:

“Many of the prisoners released today are likely to continue their political activity, and they should not be thrown in jail again for exercising their basic rights.

“Any meaningful claim by the authorities to political reform in Burma must involve putting an end to crimes against humanity against their own population.

“Burma must not only uphold this claim but improve its human rights record, including ceasing widespread and systematic violations against ethnic minority civilians.”

 Background

At the UN Human Rights Council in January 2011, the Burmese authorities denied holding any political prisoners, claiming that all those behind bars were criminals.  In August, Burma’s Minister of Home Affairs Lt. Gen. Ko Ko, reportedly told the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma that “over 100 prisoners” said to be prisoners of conscience had committed criminal offences.

One prisoner of conscience whom Amnesty spoke with just hours before he was detained in October 2007, Htay Kywe, is serving a 64-year prison sentence in a cell measuring 2.4 metres by three metres in Buthidaung prison, over 1,000 kilometers from his home in Yangon.  He has been tortured in prison.  It is not yet known if he is among those released today.

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