BURMA: Free all human rights defenders and stop ongoing arbitrary arrests and imprisonment

Paris-Geneva, November 20, 2013. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an FIDH-OMCT joint programme, welcomes the latest release of human rights defenders who were among the political prisoners detained in Burma/Myanmar, and now urges the Government to immediately and unconditionally release all those who remain detained and to stop ongoing arbitrary arrests and imprisonment.

“President Thein Sein’s promise to release all political prisoners by the end of the year is not enough ”, said Karim Lahidji, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).“He should ensure an immediate halt to the judicial harassment and detention of activists and human rights defenders in the country”, he added.

On November 15, 2013, Burma’s President Thein Sein ordered the release of 69 political prisoners in his latest amnesty. Among those freed were high profile human rights defenders such as Ms. Naw Ohn Hla, leading member of the Democracy and Peace Women Network, but also U Aung Soe, a member of Yangon People’s Support Network, which campaigns for the respect of rule of law and democracy in Burma and has been involved in the campaign against the Letpadaung project, along with Ko Soe Thu and U Maung San, two villagers, for their participation in peaceful protests against the Letpadaung copper mining project in Salingyi Township, Sagaing Region, a joint venture between the Burmese military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wan Bao Company which led to the displacement of farming families in 26 villages from their land, with more than 7,000 acres confiscated in 2010.

“It is vital to repeal the whole legal arsenal that has been abused against human rights defenders and rehabilitate those who unduly suffered”, said Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). “The international community, too, has a card to play to ensure an enabling environment for civil society allowing the full strength of Burmese society to contribute to the process of transition ”, he added.

At least 60 political prisoners remain behind bars and 265 people, mostly farmers who protested against land confiscation, are awaiting trial. In addition, the Government continues to use oppressive laws to jail activists as well as villagers in ethnic nationality areas. The amnesty indeed fell on the same day that a Yangon court sentenced Ko Htin Kyaw, leader of the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), a community-based organisation which represents grass-roots communities and struggles against land-grabbing and other human rights violations, to six months in prison under the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law, in relation to a protest against land grabbing. In addition, on the same day that President Thein Sein ordered the release of the 69 political prisoners, a court in Myitkyina sentenced four Kachin men to two years in prison under the Unlawful Association Act for their alleged ties to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The jail term contradicts the much-heralded October-10 agreement between the Burmese Government and the KIA to reduce hostilities, signed in the presence of United Nations and Chinese officials.

The amnesty also failed to address the dire situation of Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung, two defenders of the rights of the Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine State who remain detained along with hundreds of Rohingya following sectarian violence in 2012. In August and October 2013, various courts in Northern Arakan State sentenced a total of 115 Rohingya to lengthy prison terms for their alleged involvement in last year’s communal unrest.

As with previous releases of political prisoners, the November 15 amnesty was strategically timed to coincide with an important international event. In this instance, it was a three-day visit to Burma by a high-level EU delegation.

The Observatory urges the Burmese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders who remain detained as of today, to put an end to any kind of harassment – including at judicial and administrative levels – against all human rights defenders in the country, and to conform more generally with the provisions of the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

SOURCE www.fidh.org