WASHINGTON, BANGKOK, THAILAND -- March 21 -- Today, two human rights organizations--the United States Campaign for Burma and Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners--asked the United Nations to issue a ruling on whether the extended imprisonment of ten Burmese dissidents stands in violation of international law.
"Our request highlights the extended detention of political prisoners in Burma under the dictator Than Shwe and his system of phony 'laws'", said Aung Din, a former political prisoner and policy director of the US Campaign for Burma. "Than Shwe creates bogus laws simply to put his opponents in jail."
"These people have committed no crime," adds Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. "They are guilty only of hoping for human rights and freedom."
The appeal came in the form of a 33-page case filed before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Group was set up by the UN Commission on Human Rights to investigate cases of arbitrary detention and report back to the Commission.
Nine of the ten prisoners are held under section 10 (a) of Burma's State Protection Act, a draconian law that allows the ruling dictator Than Shwe to incarcerate individuals for up to five years without trial or legal appeal. The law states that such detentions can be given to any individual whom "endangers the sovereignty and security of the state or public peace and tranquility." The law's vague and nebulous wording allows for liberal and arbitrary application, and nearly every provision stands in contradiction to international legal and human rights norms. Two of those arrested are members of parliament, elected in Burma's last democratic election in 1990.
U Tin Oo, one of the most prominent prisoners, is held under section 10 (b) of the Act. The section of the law allows for up to three years of arbitrary house arrest. He is an elected member of parliament and a leader of 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi's political party the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest as well.
Another elected member of parliament, Dr. May Win Myint, was arrested for what Than Shwe's regime called "anti-government activities with a mob" -- the mob being the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 82% of the parliamentary seats in the 1990 election. She was arrested on October 28, 1997 after she and other NLD members attempted to organize a local youth chapter of the National League for Democracy. The authorities blocked the meeting and later that night the military intelligence arrested and sentenced her to seven years in prison. She has completed the original seven-year sentence, but was recently informed her detention has been extended for a year under the State Protection Act without reason or legal appeal.
Amnesty International has characterized several of the ten as a "torture concern." Than Shwe's regime has acquired an international reputation for employing the most gruesome forms of torture. Methods include severe beatings, the rolling of iron bars over shins and forearms, electrical shocks to all areas of the body including genitals, and "water torture"--during which water is slowly dripped on the head for hours at a time, resulting in crushing pain. Other methods include the "airplane," in which prisoners are tied upside down by their feet and spun in the air, and "poun zan," in which prisoners are forced to assume difficult standing positions for long periods of time. All methods are extremely painful, and have resulted in the deaths of 93 political prisoners behind bars. Many more have died shortly after their release.
Additionally, health care in the prisons is virtually non-existent. Many political prisoners have developed severe, chronic illnesses as a result of their detention. Prisoners suffer from severe hypertension, high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic liver cirrhosis, gastric ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, arthritis, depression, cervical spondylosis and nerve damage. Without health care, the health condition for each prisoner is likely to deteriorate further and result in debilitation or even death.
Myat San, who is currently suffering from tuberculosis and gastric ulcers, has serious health problems. He was a student activist arrested in 1991 for organizing a demonstration honoring Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. The demonstrators were attacked by Than Shwe's military and were subsequently thrown in jail, beaten, and tortured. Several protestors were beaten to death or died from their wounds shortly thereafter. Myat San is currently held in a prison eight hours away from his home, making it almost impossible for family members to visit him.
Tragically, all of the ten prisoners have completed previous unjust, arbitrary and lengthy prison sentences for having broken other "laws" of Than Shwe's regime. In addition to the State Protection Act, all laws used to detain political activists are so incoherent and self-contradictory that it is unclear what constitutes a violation such laws, and what rationale is then used to determine prison sentences. Thus, no one can ascertain when or if these prisoners might be released.
The United Nations General Assembly and Commission on Human Rights have passed several resolutions calling for the release of all political prisoners in Burma. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a special envoy to Burma, Malaysian Ambassador Razali Ismail, to promote peaceful reconciliation in the country. To date, Than Shwe has refused to engage with Ambassador Ismail. Yet, the Secretary General's office and envoy appear incapable of a robust response, even though most leaders recognize Than Shwe as a weak and unsophisticated dictator. In October 2004, the US Congress, Australian Senate, and Netherlands Parliament all passed resolutions calling on the UN Security Council to address the matter, but Annan has not responded.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates there are at least 1,400 political prisoners in Burma.
A ruling by the Working Group usually takes at least 90 days.
List of prisoners: (1) U Tin Oo; (2) Aung Khin; (3) Khin Maung Ye; (4) Dr. May Win Myint; (5) Myat San; (6) Than Naing; (7) Dr. Than Nyein; (8) Thet Khaing; (9) Tin Aung; (10) Tin Aye Kyu.