Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Political prisoners in Burma double in two years

Human Rights Watch released a report today that says that the number of political prisoners in Burma has doubled in only two years. Many of the prisoners were arrested after peaceful demonstrations in 2007, or for helping in the relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

The press release of the report from Human Rights provides more information of the cirumstances of the imprisonments. You can download the full report titled "Burma's Forgotten Prisoners," from their website.

Political opponents, activists and others with the courage to speak out against military rule or criticize government actions or policies have been routinely locked up in Burma's prisons for years. There are 43 known prisons holding political activists in Burma, while more than 50 labor camps where prisoners are forced to perform hard labor.

Repression increased after the popular uprising led in part by monks in August and September 2007 was crushed by the government. Closed courts and courts inside prisons have held unfair trials and sentenced more than 300 political figures, human rights defenders, labor activists, artists, journalists, comedians, internet bloggers, and Buddhist monks and nuns to lengthy prison terms. Some prison terms have been for more than 100 years. The activists were mainly charged under provisions of Burma's archaic penal code that criminalizes free expression, peaceful demonstration, and forming of independent organizations. More than 20 prominent activists and journalists, including Burma's most famous comedian, Zargana, were arrested for having spoken out about obstacles to humanitarian relief following Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma in May 2008.

The world was reminded of the brutality of the military government after the arrest, protracted and unfair trial and conviction of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in August after an American intruder broke into her house. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won the last Burmese elections in 1990, has been in prison or house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.

"Gaining the release of Suu Kyi is important not just for her own well-being, but because it could facilitate a process that allowed the opposition to fully participate in elections and Burmese society," said Malinowski. "But Suu Kyi is not the only person facing persecution for her political beliefs. People like the comedian Zargana, imprisoned for criticizing the government's pathetic response to Cyclone Nargis, or Su Su Nway, a brave woman activist who led street protests, also deserve the world's attention."

"Burma's Forgotten Prisoners" spotlights the cases of political prisoners including:

* Zargana: In November 2008, a Rangoon court sentenced prominent comedian and social activist Zargana to 59 years in jail - a sentence later reduced to 35 years - for disbursing relief aid and talking to the international media about his frustrations in assisting victims of Cyclone Nargis. Zargana was previously detained for a year following the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, and jailed for four years in 1990-94 for making political speeches. Police rearrested Zargana in September 2007 for publicly supporting the protests by monks, and detained him for 20 days. Zargana is serving his sentence in a prison in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in northern Burma, which is known for its bitterly cold winter and is difficult for relatives to reach. His mother Daw Kyi Oo died in March 2009, while Zargana was in prison.
* U Gambira: On November 4, 2007, Burmese authorities arrested 28-year-old U Gambira, one of the main leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, which had spearheaded the September 2007 protests. On the day of U Gambira's arrest, the Washington Post published an opinion piece in which he wrote: "The regime's use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago." On November 21, 2007, U Gambira was sentenced to a total of 68 years in prison (since reduced to 63 years), including 12 with hard labor. His brother Aung Ko Ko Lwin received 20 years in prison for hiding him, and was sent to Kyaukpyu prison in Arakan state, while his brother-in-law Moe Htet Hlyan was also jailed for helping him while he was being pursued by the authorities.
* Su Su Nway: In 2005, labor rights activist Su Su Nway became the first person to successfully prosecute local officials for the imposition of forced labor, a common human rights violation in Burma. Su Su Nway, who suffers from a heart condition, was subsequently sentenced to one and a half years of imprisonment in October 2005 on charges of "using abusive language against the authorities." In 2006, she was awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award by the Canadian human rights group Rights and Democracy. She was rearrested in November 2007, after leading peaceful protests earlier that year. In November 2008, she was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison after being charged with treason and "intent to cause fear or harm to the public."

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