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Burma: Piecemeal releases of political prisoners do not demonstrate genuine commitment to necessary reforms

Paris-Bangkok, 14 October 2011. The release this week of an estimated 220 political prisoners in Burma comes as a relief to their families and colleagues, but again fall far short of a key benchmark for reconciliation and genuine transition to democracy, namely the unconditional and immediate release of all remaining political prisoners and the cessation of military attacks on civilians, said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organization the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma) today.

While some prominent political prisoners, such as the comedian Zarganar, were among those released, many other senior democracy movement leaders such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Htay Kywe, U Gambira and leaders of ethnic groups remain in prison. Before this week’s releases, the number of political prisoners is estimated at close to 2,000, almost half of whom were thrown in prison after the brutal crackdown of the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The Burmese government has routinely denied even the existence of political prisoners in international fora. On August 22nd, Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo declared to UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana that “...there is no prisoner serving a term for his belief”.

Limited and piecemeal releases of political prisoners have taken place before, including under former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. Instead of leading to more substantive reforms, there were new arrests and detention of opposition members, dissidents, journalists and others for merely exercising their freedom of expression, association and assembly. Many political prisoners previously released were placed back in arbitrary detention, such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Zarganar.

The draconian laws and regulations under which political prisoners were charged and detained remain firmly in place today, including provisions of the Penal Code, the Unlawful Association Act (1908), the State Protection Law (1975), and Electronic Transactions Law (2004). They can and continue to be used to persecute dissidents and the opposition. The government has so far shown no commitment or even signal to repeal or drastically amend these laws to bring them into line with international human rights standards.

The limited releases, along with recent superficial gestures and statements, seem strategically timed and aimed at relieving international pressure and are woefully inadequate to prove the government’s professed commitment to substantive reforms, said FIDH and Altsean-Burma.

“Universal human rights and freedoms are not bargaining chips,” said Ms. Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “All political prisoners must be released now and their civil and political rights fully restored.”

The unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners is among the minimum benchmarks the regime has been called on to meet to demonstrate real commitment towards genuine reforms. The government must also initiate an inclusive dialogue with key stakeholders from democracy groups and ethnic nationalities, including a comprehensive review of the 2008 Constitution, and immediately cease systematic human rights abuses and criminal hostilities against ethnic minority groups, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“The refusal to release all political prisoners at once is a firm reminder to the international community that, despite a flurry of democratic rhetoric, the steps taken by the Thein Sein administration thus far may be cosmetic at best and manipulative at worst,” said Debbie Stothard, Deputy Secretary-General of FIDH and Coordinator of Altsean-Burma. “Real change has not come to Burma and will not come unless the minimum benchmarks are fully met.”



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