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No indication Myanmar will release prisoners ahead of elections – UN rights expert

No indication Myanmar will release prisoners ahead of elections – UN rights expert

Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana, (back row, right) with children in Myanmar on a previous visit
An independent United Nations human rights expert who recently visited Myanmar said today that there is no indication that the Government is willing to release political prisoners ahead of national elections scheduled for later this year.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, had stated prior to his 15-19 February visit that the elections should be fair and transparent, that freedom of speech, movement and association should be guaranteed in the country, and that all prisoners of conscience should be released before the polls so they can be as inclusive as possible.

“Without full participation, including by the some 2,100 prisoners of conscience, and an environment that allows people and parties to engage in the range of electoral activities, the elections cannot be credible,” he said today, as he presented his report to the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Mr. Quintana has also stated that the Government missed an opportunity to prove its commitment to holding inclusive elections by extending the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, effectively barring her from participating in the country’s elections.

His request to meet Ms. Suu Kyi during last month’s visit was rejected. “I consider her a prisoner of conscience and reiterate my call for her release without delay,” he said today.

The Special Rapporteur added that he did not come away from his most recent visit with a “clear sense of progress” on the four core elements he put forward to the Government in August 2008.

He had urged the Government to complete the following tasks ahead of this year’s elections: the revision of domestic laws that limit fundamental rights, the progressive release of the prisoners of conscience still in detention, the reform and training of the military so that it conforms with human rights, and changes to the judiciary so that it is fully independent.

“The same large number of prisoners of conscience is to be found in prisons across the country, while new arrests and sentences continue, though there have been some occasional releases,” said Mr. Quintana, who was given access to three prisons during the visit.

Stating that the human rights challenges that the Government has to deal with are “daunting,” he stressed that accountability for past violations has to be established. “The possibility that the gross and systematic nature of the human rights violations may entail crimes against humanity must be seriously examined and addressed accordingly.

“It is now the time for the Government of Myanmar to assume its responsibility to undertake steps in this direction,” said Mr. Quintana. “And it is also now for the international community to consider further steps to ensure accountability and to assist the authorities of Myanmar in fulfilling this obligation.”

Mr. Quintana noted that Myanmar is at a “critical” moment in its history, with elections planned for the first time in 20 years.

“The process towards the organization of elections should represent an important opportunity for the Government of Myanmar to address a range of human rights issues and to initiate the much-needed reforms towards the building of democratic institutions.

“I am concerned that this opportunity is not being seized.”

Last month’s visit to the country – carried out at the invitation of the Government – was Mr. Quintana’s third since being appointed to his post in May 2008. He reports to the Human Rights Council in an independent and unpaid capacity.