Burma: Surge in Political Prisoners

(Washington, DC) – Burma’s military government has more than doubled the number of political prisoners in the past two years, including more than a hundred imprisoned in recent months, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. Sentenced to long prison terms for their involvement in peaceful demonstrations in 2007, and for assisting civilians in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the political prisoner population has reached more than 2,200.

The 35-page report, “Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners,” showcases dozens of prominent political activists, Buddhist monks, labor activists, journalists, and artists arrested since peaceful political protests in 2007 and sentenced to draconian prison terms after unfair trials. The report was released on September 16, 2009 at a Capitol Hill news conference hosted by Senator Barbara Boxer.

Human Rights Watch said that Burma’s rulers should immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners in Burma if scheduled elections in 2010 are to have any credibility.”Burma’s generals are planning elections next year that will be a sham if their opponents are in prison,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite recent conciliatory visits by UN and foreign officials, the military government is actually increasing the number of critics it is throwing into its squalid prisons.”

The release of the report marks the launch of “2100 by 2010,” Human Rights Watch’s global campaign for the release of all political prisoners in Burma by the time of the 2010 elections.

“We named the campaign ‘2100 by 2010’ in July – but since then, the number has grown to approximately 2250,” said Malinowski. “The United States, China, India, and Burma’s neighbors in Southeast Asia should make the release of all political prisoners a central goal of their engagement with Burma, and use every tool of influence and leverage they have to achieve it.”

In a September 9 letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Human Rights Watch called on the United States to complete its policy review on Burma and focus on the promotion of human rights through principled diplomacy, tougher financial sanctions, and additional but properly monitored humanitarian aid.

Political opponents, activists and others with the courage to speak out against military rule or criticize government actions or policies have been routinely locked up in Burma’s prisons for years. There are 43 known prisons holding political activists in Burma, while more than 50 labor camps where prisoners are forced to perform hard labor.

Repression increased after the popular uprising led in part by monks in August and September 2007 was crushed by the government. Closed courts and courts inside prisons have held unfair trials and sentenced more than 300 political figures, human rights defenders, labor activists, artists, journalists, comedians, internet bloggers, and Buddhist monks and nuns to lengthy prison terms. Some prison terms have been for more than 100 years. The activists were mainly charged under provisions of Burma’s archaic penal code that criminalizes free expression, peaceful demonstration, and forming of independent organizations. More than 20 prominent activists and journalists, including Burma’s most famous comedian, Zargana, were arrested for having spoken out about obstacles to humanitarian relief following Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma in May 2008.

The world was reminded of the brutality of the military government after the arrest, protracted and unfair trial and conviction of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in August after an American intruder broke into her house. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won the last Burmese elections in 1990, has been in prison or house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.

“Gaining the release of Suu Kyi is important not just for her own well-being, but because it could facilitate a process that allowed the opposition to fully participate in elections and Burmese society,” said Malinowski. “But Suu Kyi is not the only person facing persecution for her political beliefs. People like the comedian Zargana, imprisoned for criticizing the government’s pathetic response to Cyclone Nargis, or Su Su Nway, a brave woman activist who led street protests, also deserve the world’s attention.”

“Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners” spotlights the cases of political prisoners including:

Zargana: In November 2008, a Rangoon court sentenced prominent comedian and social activist Zargana to 59 years in jail – a sentence later reduced to 35 years – for disbursing relief aid and talking to the international media about his frustrations in assisting victims of Cyclone Nargis. Zargana was previously detained for a year following the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, and jailed for four years in 1990-94 for making political speeches. Police rearrested Zargana in September 2007 for publicly supporting the protests by monks, and detained him for 20 days. Zargana is serving his sentence in a prison in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in northern Burma, which is known for its bitterly cold winter and is difficult for relatives to reach. His mother Daw Kyi Oo died in March 2009, while Zargana was in prison.

U Gambira: On November 4, 2007, Burmese authorities arrested 28-year-old U Gambira, one of the main leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, which had spearheaded the September 2007 protests. On the day of U Gambira’s arrest, the Washington Post published an opinion piece in which he wrote: “The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago.” On November 21, 2007, U Gambira was sentenced to a total of 68 years in prison (since reduced to 63 years), including 12 with hard labor. His brother Aung Ko Ko Lwin received 20 years in prison for hiding him, and was sent to Kyaukpyu prison in Arakan state, while his brother-in-law Moe Htet Hlyan was also jailed for helping him while he was being pursued by the authorities.

Su Su Nway: In 2005, labor rights activist Su Su Nway became the first person to successfully prosecute local officials for the imposition of forced labor, a common human rights violation in Burma. Su Su Nway, who suffers from a heart condition, was subsequently sentenced to one and a half years of imprisonment in October 2005 on charges of “using abusive language against the authorities.” In 2006, she was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award by the Canadian human rights group Rights and Democracy. She was rearrested in November 2007, after leading peaceful protests earlier that year. In November 2008, she was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison after being charged with treason and “intent to cause fear or harm to the public.”

Min Ko Naing: Born in 1962, Min Ko Naing is a former chairman of the All- Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and one of the student leaders of the “8/8/88 uprising” against the Burmese junta which began on August 8, 1988. Arrested in 1989, he was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for instigating “disturbances to the detriment of law and order, peace and tranquility.” In November 2004, he was released after serving 15 years in prison. After taking part in peaceful demonstrations in August 2007, he was arrested along with other leaders of the 8/8/88 movement. On November 11, 2008, Min Ko Naing was sentenced to 65 years of imprisonment. Min Ko Naing was reportedly tortured during periods of his detention.

Human Rights Watch said that it is seriously concerned for the health of many prisoners held in remote facilities with poor medical and sanitation conditions. The Burmese government should immediately permit the resumption of International Committee of the Red Cross visits to prisons to assist those in custody, and grant access to other independent humanitarian organizations. The government should also end its disgraceful and punitive practice of transferring prisoners to remote areas, placing a huge burden on family members to visit and provide urgently needed medicine and food.

“Instead of being persecuted and imprisoned, people like Zargana, U Gambira, Su Su Nway and Min Ko Naing should be allowed to help their country,” said Malinowski. “When visiting Burma, foreign officials should ask not just to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, but with other Burmese political activists in prison to solicit their views and show support for their courageous and important work.”

Human Rights Watch said that during this critical period, the Burmese government’s friends such as China, India, Japan, Russia, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), members of the UN Security Council, the UN secretary-general, and others should use their influence to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

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