Empty Response to UN Envoy’s Call for Release of All 2,100 Political Prisoners
May 16, 2011
The government’s gesture will be welcomed by a great many prisoners in Burma, but for the 2,100 political prisoners unjustly serving sentences of up to 65 years, the one-year reduction is a sick joke. This is a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners.
Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Burmese government's decision to grant a one-year sentence reduction to all prisoners is a slap in the face to a senior United Nations' envoy who had just called for the release of all political prisoners in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 16, 2011, President Thein Sein issued Order No. 28/2011, which provides for an "amnesty" to all prisoners by either commuting their death sentences to life in prison or reduces their sentences by one year. Prisoners with less than a year remaining in their sentences will presumably be released.

"The government's gesture will be welcomed by a great many prisoners in Burma, but for the 2,100 political prisoners unjustly serving sentences of up to 65 years, the one-year reduction is a sick joke," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners."

The amnesty announcement comes soon after the visit by the UN secretary-general's Burma envoy, Vijay Nambiar, from May 11-13. In his remarks following the visit, Nambiar said that he raised the political prisoner issue with the new government, which assumed formal power on March 30.  He stated, "Domestically and internationally, expectations are high that [the new government] will start taking concrete steps soon. In all my meetings, I stressed that this must include the release of all political prisoners."

While the death sentence remains on the books in Burma's sentencing laws, the country has not conducted state executions of prisoners in decades. Human Rights Watch said that the commutation of existing death sentences should be followed by a ban on all capital punishment under Burmese law.  Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty under all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.

Despite long-standing calls by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and many governments around the world, there have been no significant political prisoner releases in Burma since the November 2010 elections apart from the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, when her house arrest order expired. Human Rights Watch's campaign "Behind Bars: Free Burma's Political Prisoners" seeks to secure the release of all 2,100 political detainees in Burma, a number that effectively doubled since 2007. Human Rights Watch urged the UN, ASEAN, and Burma's main trading partners to speak out against the inadequacy of the "amnesty" and call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.

Some leading political prisoners serving long sentences include:

  • Zargana, Burma's most famous comedian, who is serving a 35-year sentence for criticizing the military government's slow response to Cyclone Nargis;
  • U Gambira, a 30-year-old monk who was one of the leaders of the peaceful protests of August and September 2007 and is now serving a 63-year sentence;
  • Min Ko Naing, a former student leader serving a 65-year sentence;
  • Nay Phone Latt, a 30-year-old blogger who used his blog to spread news about the 2007 protests and was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison; and
  • Su Su Nway, a female labor rights activist serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after raising a banner criticizing Burma's government at the hotel of a visiting UN special envoy.

"The UN and ASEAN should immediately make clear that Burma's paltry ‘amnesty' measure won't be treated as a serious human rights reform," Pearson said.

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