Friday, September 22, 2017

Rights groups write to Obama over prisoners

Activists say they will use the next round of ASEAN meetings to highlight the government’s failure to release all political prisoners, as new figures show more than 200 people are in jail or on trial for political activities.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) have written to international leaders – including US President Barack Obama – and asked them to raise the issue, which has largely fallen off the radar since the end of 2013, at the meeting in November.

FPPS spokesperson U Thet Oo said it was important that international leaders do not overlook those who are still being locked up for political activities, particularly because the government was no longer cooperating with local organisations to facilitate their release.

“We want international leaders to push the government to release political prisoners. The government always says Myanmar doesn’t have any more political prisoners and we want international leaders to know that’s not the case and they shouldn’t trust the government,” U Thet Oo said.

Activists are unhappy that the Remaining Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, which was set up by the government in February 2013 to recommend the release of political prisoners, has essentially ceased to operate.

Chaired by Minister for the President’s Office U Soe Thein, the committee met monthly in 2013 but has convened only three times so far this year. Some representatives from the government side, including U Soe Thein, have failed to attend the more recent meetings.

Activists say the committee urgently needs to meet to agree on a definition for the term “political prisoner” so it can be submitted to the president and parliament and enshrined in law. Civil society groups agreed on a broad definition for the term at a two-day forum last month but the government is yet to comment on the issue.

Activists have also called for a new committee to be formed to address new cases that the government refused to acknowledge.

'”We need to call a committee meeting because we have many issues to discuss, including the definition of a political prisoner and the need to organise a new committee. They should call the meeting this month," said U Ye Aung, a former political prisoner who sits on the committee.

According to a review of the political prisoner situation conducted by the AAPP in August, as of the end of the month there were 84 political prisoners behind bars. An estimated 122 individuals had been charged for politically motivated actions and were awaiting trial.

In August, 28 people new political prisoners were jailed, one was released and five were tortured, the AAPP said.

“On average the number of political prisoners is increasing by about 10 individuals per month [in 2014],” said U Aung Myo Kyaw, a Yangon-based spokesperson for the group.

The AAPP said many new political prisoners had been jailed under section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for participating in a demonstration without official permission. 

“Barring any significant political turnaround or change of policy, the number of political prisoners is likely to continue to increase throughout the remainder of 2014,” AAPP said in a September 8 statement.

The government, however, insists there are no political prisoners in Myanmar jails. During a visit to the United Kingdom in June 2013, he promised that all prisoners would be freed by the end of the year. The government said this promise was achieved following several amnesties in the second half of the year but more than 30 political prisoners remained locked up as of January 1.

Minister for Information U Ye Htut, a spokesperson for President U Thein Sein, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.