More Than 2,100 Political Prisoners Should be Released Before Elections
March 18, 2010
Nyi Nyi Aung’s release, while welcome, should not be seen as a concession, liberalization, or a softening by Burma’s ruling generals. His treatment repeats the Burmese junta’s squalid tactic of using political detainees as bargaining chips ahead of stage-managed elections.
Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director

The Burmese military government's release today of imprisoned US citizen Nyi Nyi Aung should be followed by the immediate and unconditional release of Burma's more than 2,100 political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today.

"Nyi Nyi Aung's release, while welcome, should not be seen as a concession, liberalization, or a softening by Burma's ruling generals," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "His treatment repeats the Burmese junta's squalid tactic of using political detainees as bargaining chips ahead of stage-managed elections."

Nyi Nyi Aung, who is also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin, was sentenced to three years in prison in February on spurious charges after an unfair trial.

Nyi Nyi Aung had previously campaigned for the release of political prisoners in Burma, including his mother and two cousins, who remain in prison. He visited Burma on a valid visa in order to see them and was arrested on arrival in Rangoon on September 3, 2009. He was initially accused of national security violations, but other trumped-up charges were added later. He was accused of holding a forged Burmese national identity card, even though he holds a US passport, and of immigration offenses. He was also charged with failing to declare foreign currency at customs, although authorities arrested him before he passed through customs. While in detention, Nyi Nyi Aung was subject to torture and ill-treatment, and at one point staged a hunger strike. No reason has been given for his release. Burmese authorities immediately deported him to Thailand.

"Nyi Nyi Aung should never have been jailed in the first place," Pearson said. "His release shows that concerted international pressure on Burma can work."

In the past year, the ruling State Peace and Development Council has arrested at least 271 political activists in Burma, adding to an estimated 2,195 political prisoners. During the same period, some 267 were released. Since October, 44 activists have been sentenced to harsh prison terms, most ranging from 5 to 52 years.

Elections in Burma have been slated for 2010. The election law released on March 10 by the Burmese military government includes provisions barring prisoners from being members of political parties. The law effectively excludes activists currently imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and more than 400 members of the NLD, members of the 88 Generation Students such as Min Ko Naing, human rights defenders, and well known members of civil society such as the comedian Zargana.

"Nyi Nyi Aung's release underscores the plight of more than 2,100 others who have long struggled for inclusion in a genuine democratic process in Burma," Pearson said. "The world should see his release as an opportunity to intensify efforts to press the military government to release all political prisoners and permit them full and unfettered participation in the elections."

Human Rights Watch is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Burma through its "2,100 in 2010: Free Burma's Political Prisoners" campaign.

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