Myanmar: Latest releases a step towards freedom for all prisoners of conscience by year’s end – UN rights expert

GENEVA (11 December 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, on Wednesday welcomed the release of 44 prisoners of conscience in the country. 

“Today marked another step towards fulfilling the President’s pledge to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.  When I look back to the start of my mandate in 2008, I was referring to figures of over 1,900 persons detained on political grounds.  It is important to acknowledge the significance of the progress that has been made: today we are referring to figures of less than 50,” the expert said. 

He commended the work of the prisoner review committee, set up by the Government in February 2013 to identify remaining political prisoners and chaired by Minister in the President’s Office, U Soe Thein.  The expert reiterated his hope to see this committee’s mandate expanded to monitor the treatment of those released. 

The Special Rapporteur added: “The practice of arresting those who express views that are different to those of the Government has become embedded during 50 years of military rule. Moving to a culture of democracy, where people are free to express their views, will take time. The releases today are a step towards this, but need to be accompanied by legislative reforms.”

Among those included in today’s release was human rights defender Moe Tway, whom the Special Rapporteur had met on his previous visits to the country to discuss the situation of human rights there. Moe Tway was among a group of six activists sentenced on 21 November 2013 to one month’s imprisonment under article 18 of the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, following their participation in a peaceful demonstration concerning the Letpadaung copper mine in December 2012.

Article 18 provides for a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of 30,000 kyat (USD 30.5) for anyone participating in a protest without a permit from authorities.

“The fact that political prisoners are being released for convictions that occurred less than three weeks ago highlights the need for Parliament to prioritise the amendment of article 18 of this Act,” Ojea Quintana said. 

“If the Government can achieve its pledge to release all political prisoners by the end of the year and also amend article 18, this will set them on the right track as they assume the chairmanship of ASEAN and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights at the start of 2014.”