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Burma: President's promise over prisoners of conscience coincides with latest arrest

Thein Sein says no POCs by end of year, but 74-year-old lawyer is latest detainee

Amnesty International has called into question President Thein Sein’s recent commitment to clear Burma’s jails of prisoners of conscience by the end of the year. On the same day he made this promise to delegates at a conference in London earlier this week, police in the country’s Rakhine state arbitrarily detained a 74-year-old Rohingya human rights defender.

During a speech at the independent policy institute Chatham House on Monday, President Thein Sein said: “I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Burma.”  

Thein Sein added that all cases are being reviewed through a committee established by the Burmese government earlier this year, “to ensure that no one remains in prison due to his or her political beliefs.”

However, since Monday, U Kyaw Hla Aung, a prominent Rohingya lawyer and former staff member of a humanitarian non-governmental organisation, has been held in police custody in Rakhine state. U Kyaw Hla Aung has previously spent more than 16 years in prison in Burma due to his involvement in peaceful activities, and continues to be monitored and harassed by the authorities. Most recently, he was arbitrarily arrested and detained in June last year along with several Rohingya aid workers following violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state. He was released last August. Amnesty believes he is currently being targeted as an influential Rohingya human rights defender with connections to members of the international community.

Amnesty International’s Burma researcher Amy Smith said:

“It’s all well and good for Thein Sein to promise an end to prisoners of conscience, but there is a long way to go from what we’ve seen in recent months.

“The government continues to rely on repressive laws to silence dissent and jail peaceful protesters in Burma.

“We’ll be looking to President Thein Sein to make good on this promise. He could start by avoiding the creation of new prisoners of conscience.

“U Kyaw Hla Aung joins scores of other human rights defenders who have recently been arrested, charged, or detained for their involvement in peaceful activities. The charges against these activists should be dropped and those detained should be immediately released.”

The authorities in Burma have recently relied on a range of domestic laws to criminalise individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. For example, on 10 July police in Pyay Township in Bago Region arrested activist Wai Phyo for organising a “Free Political Prisoners” poster campaign in 2011. He is being charged with violating the 1962 Printing and Publications Registrations Act. Wai Phyo is the Secretary of Generation Wave, a Burmese pro-democracy youth group.

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