United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Tomás Quintana has commended last week’s amnesty but called on the government to remove restrictions on former prisoners and ease their way back into society.
The government released 56 political prisoners on October 8, the latest in a series of amnesties that have freed hundreds of political detainees from the country’s jails.
However, under Myanmar law convicted persons face a web of restrictions upon their release that can prohibit their reintegration into society, Mr Quintana warned.
“Administrative obstacles should … be removed which hinder former prisoners’ freedoms to relocate to different states and regions in Myanmar, restrict them in running for public office, as well as hinder their acquisition of passports and professional work licences,” Mr Quintana said.
“The release of prisoners of conscience must be without any conditions.”
In an official statement, Mr Quintana said the releases were “not only important for the victims and their families, but also for the ongoing process of democratic transition and national reconciliation”.
Speaking to The Myanmar Times separately, Mr Quintana said via email that the legal framework needs to be updated and amended to reflect modern international standards and ensure that convicted persons are treated fairly both during and after detention.
One law that the government has promised to amend is the Prisons Law, which dates to the colonial period. Mr Quintana said this would be an important development but expressed concern at the lack of a firm time frame for the law’s introduction.
The draft law is currently being vetted by the Attorney General’s Office and will be sent back to the Prisons Department soon, Mr Quintana told The Myanmar Times. He further reiterated his recommendation for Myanmar’s ratification of the Convention against Torture and associated international instruments.
“I support the passing of a new Prisons Law as one of the necessary measures to tackle the practice of using torture to extract confessions, to improve access to health care and to guard against prisoners being transferred to remote prisons which family members have difficulty accessing,” Mr Quintana said.
He said conditions in Myanmar’s jails appear to have improved but cautioned that his observations were based on visits that were limited in scope and where the government had received advance warning of his arrival.
“I note the improvement in conditions of detention compared to when I first conducted prison visits in 2008 and I hope that these improvements will continue, particularly with regard to access to adequate food and health care.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) resumed prison visits this year with two key projects focusing on rehabilitating and improving water and sanitation in correctional facilities and material input for strengthening healthcare in detention.
ICRC was forced to suspend prison visits in 2005 because the government insisted that the group’s staff be accompanied by officials from government-linked organisations. However, in November 2012 the government said in a statement that it would once again grant ICRC access to prisoners.
An ICRC representative said last week that under its agreement with the Myanmar government information from the visits can only be shared between the two parties and therefore it cannot comment publicly on the conditions inside Myanmar’s prisons.
Ko Bo Kyi, joint secretary for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), reiterated Mr Quintana’s concerns about reintegration of released prisoners.
“The [released political prisoners] face lots of challenges,” Ko Bo Kyi said.
“They fear they will be arrested another time. They do not feel secure. They face depression and they are like strangers to their families. Children do not respect them. They feel useless because society marginalises them,” he said, linking mental health burdens with the prison experience.
Additionally, a released prisoner’s right to work is severely curbed.
Ko Bo Kyi gave the example of a lawyer, who, upon conviction “will lose his licence and cannot practice”.
“The majority of people are from poor families, they do not have any vocational certificates so can only work in general labour.”
But even menial work can be difficult for former prisoners to secure, he said, as some companies refuse to hire workers with a criminal history.