The Burmese government’s latest release of political prisoners falls short of meeting its commitment to release all political prisoners and shows the need for a transparent process to ensure that all political prisoners are immediately freed, Human Rights Watch says. The government should allow independent international monitors unhindered access to Burma’s prisons to provide an accounting of all remaining political prisoners.
On September 17th, the Burmese government announced the release of 514 prisoners, of which an estimated 88 were political prisoners. This was the fourth amnesty declared by President Thein Sein in the past year, altogether resulting in the release of nearly 500 political prisoners. The latest release coincides with separate, high-profile trips to the United States by Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The government should also end persecution of and provide support for released political prisoners, the organization said. “All political prisoner releases are good news, but until there is independent monitoring of Burma’s prisons, it won’t be known how many political prisoners still remain behind bars,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Donor governments need to press President Thein Sein in New York to release all political prisoners and allow international monitors into the prisons.”
Thein Sein’s website stated the amnesty was on “humanitarian grounds” and for “prolonging friendships with neighboring countries,” but did not say that any political prisoners would be included. The government has failed to clarify when they will be released, Human Rights Watch said.
Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs has refused to issue passports to many former political prisoners, including democracy and human rights activists, public interest lawyers, and journalists. Former political prisoners told Human Rights Watch they were informed by the ministry that they were ineligible to obtain a passport for a period of one year following their release, but provided no legal basis for this decision. Freed dissidents have also been denied the ability to resume their university studies, and released prisoners continue to lack adequate psychosocial support for the torture, mistreatment, and trauma associated with years – and in some cases decades – of imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 recently released political prisoners from various ethnic groups who said that the Burmese government placed severe restrictions on them, including on their freedom of movement.
One former prisoner said he had been denied a passport since his release in 2010, and that the Special Branch on two occasions in 2012 had interrogated him regarding his most recent passport application. Former political prisoners told Human Rights Watch this restriction has prevented them from travelling abroad to visit family, attend conferences, obtain education or training, and receive awards. The standard processing time for a passport in Burma is 21 days.
The ethnic Arakan former political prisoner told HRW in July: “I was in Insein and Moulmein prisons from 2000 to 2009. I tried to get a passport when I was released but I was told I was on a blacklist, and I tried again in 2012. The Special Branch already interrogated me twice this year. They asked me many questions like, “Are you still working on political issues?” I said, “Yes, of course I am.” They know me. They asked, “Which countries have you been to?” and, “Before you went into exile, what did you do in Burma?”… According to the law they have to issue passports to citizens of the country, even to people who have been in prison. It is my right to get a passport. I spent nine years of my life in prison and was released legally.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly accepted as reflecting customary international law, provides in article 13(2) that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Human Rights Watch urged the Burmese government to support a joint international and domestic monitoring mechanism to determine which prisoners are being held for exercising their basic rights under international law. Such a mechanism could comprise staff of United Nations agencies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; international and national nongovernmental organizations; the Myanmar Attorney General’s Office; the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the Department of Corrections; former political prisoners, including members of the exiled Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma); and members of the national parliament and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. If established, this body should issue regular, public reports.
“Burma’s political prisoners find that when they are freed they are still not really free,” Robertson said. “The authorities should drop all restrictions on their movement and education, and help them rebuild the lives that the government has so cruelly and unjustly deprived them of.”