U Tin Oo, the vice-president of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

© 1999 Reuters

(New York) - The Burmese military government should immediately release the 84-year-old opposition leader U Tin Oo, whose house arrest order expires on February 13, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also immediately release the human rights activist Nyi Nyi Aung, a US citizen sentenced to three years in prison on February 10 on spurious charges after an unfair trial.

U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), has spent nearly seven years in prison and under house arrest in Rangoon. He has been held under an annually renewed detention order and denied access to visitors and fellow party leaders since 2003. U Tin Oo's house arrest order expires one day before the arrival of the United Nations human rights envoy on Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, for a visit through February 20.

"U Tin Oo has paid dearly for his courageous opposition to military rule," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "His release on schedule will be an important test of whether Burma's generals will allow even modest pluralism before the elections this year."

Authorities arrested U Tin Oo in May 2003 on politically motivated charges of disturbing public order after pro-government militias attacked the convoy carrying him and other opposition leaders, including the National League for Democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, near Depayin, upper Burma. U Tin Oo helped form the NLD in 1988 and was also under house arrest from 1989 to 1995.

Nyi Nyi Aung, also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin, was sentenced on February 10 to three years in prison by a closed court inside Rangoon's notorious Insein prison on politically motivated charges of violating the immigration law, currency offenses, and forging documents. A native of Burma, Nyi Nyi Aung was held in Insein prison more than 20 years ago for a short period, where he was tortured. After his release he fled to Thailand. He went to the US as a refugee in 1993 and later became a US citizen, where he remained involved in peaceful activities in the United States and Thailand to seek the release of political prisoners in Burma.

Nyi Nyi Aung was arrested when he arrived 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, even though authorities arrested him before he passed through customs.

"The real reason Nyi Nyi Aung is behind bars today is his bravery in standing up for political prisoners," Adams said. "That Burma's generals didn't think twice about throwing a US citizen in jail shows their contempt for recent US efforts to have a high-level political dialogue with the government."

In the past year, the Burmese military government has arrested at least 270 political activists throughout the country, adding them to an estimated 2,195 political prisoners. During the same period, about 266 were released. Since October, 44 activists have been sentenced to harsh prison terms, most ranging from 5 to 52 years. On December 12 a court sentenced U Nanda Vantha, a Buddhist monk from Mandalay, to 71 years in prison.

Human Rights Watch's campaign, 2100 in 2010: Free Burma's Political Prisoners, calls on the international community to press for the release of all political detainees (the number stood at 2,100 when the campaign began) ahead of national elections announced for some time in 2010.

Human Rights Watch urged influential countries, including China, India, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to call publicly for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

"The UN envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has his work cut out for him on this trip," Adams said. "He should press Burma for the immediate release of U Tin Oo, Nyi Nyi Aung, and thousands of other political prisoners to stop this disgraceful charade of releasing a few prisoners and refilling their prison cells with new victims."