Political prisoners still held in Burma
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Political prisoners still held in Burma

While the NGO Human Rights Watch called for Burmese President Thein Sein to keep his promise to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, the authorities imprisoned a reporter in dubious circumstances.

According to Human Rights Watch there are still over 200 political prisoners being held in Burma.

Since 2012 Thein Sein has often granted presidential amnesties to political prisoners before the visits of foreign dignitaries.

Prior to Obama’s visit to Burma in November 2012 Thein Sein promised to set up a review committee to look at the remaining cases of political prisoners. The committee was formed in February 2013 and since then over 200 political prisoners have been released, including 69 in November and 41 in December.

On 21st December the committee decided on the cases of the remaining 39 political prisoners on its list.

No agreement was reached on the fate of over 200 more imprisoned activists who were not on their list but are still regarded as political prisoners by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs.

Rather than being prosecuted as political cases these people are prosecuted either under old military–era laws, an outdated almost arbitrary penal code consisting of many obscure infractions or new legislation which violates basic human rights, despite government claims that they give people more rights.

Phil Robertson Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said: “All those jailed for speaking out should be promptly released, including the many activists arrested in the past year.”

Human Rights Watch is calling for the government to scrap or amend such legislation so that it is in line with international human rights. This includes the 1988 association Law, the 2011 peaceful assembly law and the new proposed draft law on association.

Though they have released political prisoners in the past year the regime has also been imprisoning new political prisoners.

One such is Eleven Media journalist Naw Khine Aye Cho who was jailed on 17th December in what is believed to be the first imprisonment of a journalist since the lifting of press restrictions in 2012.

According to Irrawaddy she was sued by Loikaw-based lawyer Aye Aye Phyo after an argument allegedly took place while the reporter was seeking comments on an alleged video piracy case.

Eleven Media think the verdict may be related to recent editorials that alleged corruption in Burma’s judiciary.

Myint Kyaw a member of Burma’s Interim Press Council, a journalists’ association, told Irrawaddy that he thought the sentence was too harsh and that he suspected some political interference with the courts.

Wai Phyo, Eleven Media’s chief editor told Irrawaddy that the charges were not justified and if Burmese reporters risked being imprisoned for defamation and trespass it could deter them from following up certain stories.

He said: “This case threatens freedom of the press. A person should never be sent to jail under article 500 [defamation]. If you sentence someone under article 500, then how can anyone work as a journalist?”

In another recent political case highlighted by Burma Campaign UK three political prisoners had to go on a well-publicized hunger strike before the authorities would release them.

Khin Mi Mi Khaing, Myint Myint Aye and Thant Zin Htet were arrested on 11th June after they showed their support for farmers in Bagu Division, north of Rangoon, who ploughed their land, which had been seized from them by the Burmese Army nearly 20 years ago.

The three protestors were charged under Section 6 of the 1988 Law Relating to the Formation of Organizations, and Thant Zin Htet was also charged under Article 18(b) of the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law.

After their arrest they were denied bail and held in Paungde Prison. On December 13th, after being on trial for more than six months, refused bail and having more than 20 court hearings they began a hunger strike.

Burma Campaign UK believes they were only released because of the negative domestic and international publicity their hunger strike was attracting.

According to Human Rights Watch an estimated 156 people currently face charges or have received convictions under the association and peaceful assembly laws. Among them are Kachin activists such as May Sabe Phuy who staged peaceful demonstrations in protest of the 2011-2013 conflict in Kachin State.

An unknown number of Kachin civilians are also being detained on charges of aiding the Karen Independence Organization and its armed wing, despite the group having agreed to a tentative ceasefire with the Burmese government in March.

Following sectarian violence in 2012 an estimated 535 ethnic Rohingya have also been imprisoned. Many are being held for peaceful political activities and the breaking of repressive local laws forbidding unregistered marriages.