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Burma: Identifying and Freeing Remaining Political Prisoners

By Asian Human Rights Commission  •  July 19, 2013

The president of Burma, or Myanmar, U Thein Sein in his recent visit to the United Kingdom has made a commitment that all political prisoners in his country will be released by the end of the year. According to him, a committee is continuing to review all relevant cases and determine those persons who are prisoners of conscience and ought to be released.

The Asian Human Rights Commission welcomes this guarantee, which comes after the release of large numbers of political detainees, including all of the most high profile prisoners. However, the AHRC is concerned that the authorities are still refusing or failing to identify as political prisoners other persons whom, in the opinion of the AHRC, should enjoy the benefits of the president’s pledge.

Specifically, the AHRC has issued appeals on behalf of former armed forces personnel who are imprisoned for alleged security offences, which are either political in their contents or by virtue of the nature of the charges brought against them.

One of those persons is Win Naing Kyaw, a former army major who was detained at the airport in 2009, held without charge for 42 days and tortured to confess to carrying secret information in and out of the country (AHRC-UAC-018-2012). He and two other men, Thura Kyaw and Gopyan Sen, are presently jailed on a variety of charges, including under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the Burma Official Secrets Act, and the Electronic Transactions Law, all of which are laws that are either explicitly political in their character or, in the case of the third, customarily used in political cases. Yet, although other former political detainees have recognized Win Naing Kyaw as a political prisoner, according to his family so far attempts to get the authorities to recognize this fact have failed.

Another former armed forces officer who should enjoy the president’s guarantee is Ne Lynn Dwe, a captain in the air force who in 2011 was detained and also tortured to confess to posting information critical of the armed forces on the Internet (AHRC-UAC-182-2012). Ne Lynn Dwe was court martialled under the Emergency Provisions Act and Electronic Transactions Law and is currently serving a 20-year jail term. Although his alleged offence may warrant disciplinary proceedings, the criminal charges against him, not to mention the manner in which he was detained and tortured to confess, constitute grounds for his release in accordance with the president’s pledge.

The AHRC also takes this opportunity to note that if the president’s commitment is to have any meaning, steps must be taken to prevent the continued arrest and imprisonment of persons on political grounds. Presently, police are arresting and charging activists over their role in defying the expansion of a copper mining operation at the Letpadaung Hills, about which the AHRC has written frequently (AHRC-STM-108-2013). The copper mining operation is a joint project of the armed forces’ corporation, and the police action is evidently motivated by concern to protect the military’s interests. The arrests and trials are manifestly political in character.

The AHRC is similarly concerned over numbers of persons imprisoned in relation to the intercommunal and anti-Muslim violence of 2012-13, many of whom have reportedly been jailed in trumped up and politically motivated cases. The AHRC has highlighted the imprisonment of Islamic community elder Dr Tun Aung (AHRC-UAC-013-2013), who was accused of inciting violence in the country’s west but who by all verifiable accounts did his best to prevent violence from spreading and who was also forced to flee in fear of his life when the bloodshed spread. Although Dr Tun Aung’s case has been raised at the highest levels, including by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar with the government delegation to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, still he has not been released.

In light of the president’s remarks in the UK, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the government of Burma, or Myanmar, to

1. Make the work of the committee reviewing prisoners’ cases more transparent, in accordance with the principles of democratization to which it claims to be adhering, such that the criteria used to determine who is or is not a political prisoner are fully known and understood by all concerned parties.

2. Make the committee easily accessible to the families of political prisoners, so that they or their legal representatives can make submissions and engage in dialogue with the committee. Presently, families of those persons such as the armed forces personnel identified above say that they get no information from and have no ready access to the committee. Under these circumstances, questions about numbers of political prisoners still in jail will persist, despite whatever commitment the president makes.

3. Ensure that the criteria used by the committee are sufficiently broad as to include the cases of Win Naing Kyaw and Ne Lynn Dwe among those that are determined to be political in nature. It would be disingenuous to pretend that their imprisonment was not for political reasons, and they deserve to be released along with other detainees.

4. Review all cases of persons detained and imprisoned in 2012 and 2013, and currently in the courts, not only those imprisoned before the current government began its operations, and likewise ensure that persons who in this period who have been imprisoned for political reasons, including Dr Tun Aung, are released without delay.

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This post is in: Press Release

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