(New York) - Burma’s military government should immediately free detained activist Zargana and permit him to continue distributing aid unhindered to communities affected by Cyclone Nargis, Human Rights Watch said today.

Zargana, a famous comedian and social activist in Burma, was arrested on June 4 after giving interviews to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the exile magazine The Irrawaddy about shortcomings in the government’s aid efforts and the slow response by United Nations agencies.

“To arrest one of Burma’s most famous public figures for talking to the media at the time he was distributing aid shows the Burmese government is more concerned with controlling its citizens than assisting them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries genuinely concerned about Burma should be pressing the government for Zargana’s immediate release.”

During his arrest, officials searched Zargana’s house, seizing foreign currency and videos of the cyclone and the September 2007 protests in Rangoon. He is reportedly being held and questioned at an interrogation center in downtown Rangoon. Zargana’s network of more than 400 volunteers had reached some villages affected by the cyclone and had been distributing urgently needed food aid.

Zargana, the performing name of Maung Thura, was previously detained for a year following the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma. In 1990, the authorities jailed him for four years for making political speeches, and they have routinely harassed him by banning some of his movies and performances. For instance, the health ministry stopped a planned public health benefit involving Zargana and others on World AIDS Day on December 1, 2006 at a clinic for people living with HIV.

Police arrested Zargana again in September 2007 for publicly supporting the protests by monks, and detained him for 20 days. During his detention in 2007, Zargana was initially detained at the City Hall, but authorities subsequently moved him to Thanlyin, the Government Technical Institute, and then Insein Prison. Upon his release, Zargana told Human Rights Watch about the experience. He believed he was moved frequently to keep him out of contact with other prisoners. In Insein Prison, Zargana was held in solitary confinement in the so-called “War Dog” compound. The compound, which has nine cells, has been used for holding other prominent political prisoners such as activist from the ’88 Generation student movement, Than Tin, and National League for Democracy member, Myint Soe.

Zargana’s cell in 2007 was cramped (7 feet by 7 feet), poorly ventilated, isolated and guarded by some 30 dogs. Zargana slept on a thin mat on the floor. The iron bar door was covered with a large steel plate with only a small opening at the bottom of the cell. Zargana could not see or hear anything. A 40-watt light bulb in the room came on infrequently throughout the night, attracting mosquitoes. Burmese authorities held Zargana there for eight days, and did not permit him to bathe until the fourth day of his detention. There was no toilet or water – Zargana had to relieve himself on a tray. When it became full, he tried to urinate under the door, but the dogs tried to bite him.

Upon his release, Zargana spoke with foreign journalists and was subsequently re-detained for several days.

On October 28, 2007, the authorities compelled him to sign a pledge stating he would not talk to the media as a condition of his release. It is widely believed that authorities are holding Zargana for breaking this pledge in speaking to the BBC. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Zargana could be subjected to the same deplorable prison conditions now, and urged governments to press the Burmese authorities to immediately release him. Zargana’s family has been unable to visit him since his arrest. It is unclear if the authorities have filed any charges against him.

In 1991, Zargana received the Hellman/Hammett Prize, given by the Fund for Free Expression, a committee organized by Human Rights Watch.

Since the visit of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the international pledging conference on May 25 in Rangoon, the Burmese government has eased visa restrictions for personnel from UN agencies and international humanitarian agencies to permit them to enter Rangoon. However the government has been inconsistent in its approach to aid, allowing some aid and workers into the Irrawaddy Delta region while blocking others, including some Burmese individuals and groups (https://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/06/12/burma19124.htm).

“The outrageous arrest of Zargana, for speaking the truth about government hindrance of aid to cyclone victims, makes a mockery of the claim that handing out of a few visas is a ‘breakthrough,’” said Adams.