12/12/2013, 00.00
MYANMAR
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Burmese activists want full civil rights, not only freedom, for former political prisoners

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Yesterday, the Myanmar government released 41 political prisoners to coincide with the opening of the Southeast Asian Games in Naypyidaw. But already two of them have been re-arrested. AAPP leaders note that former prisoners of conscience are subjected to severe restrictions; unfair rules limiting their rights and freedoms should be abolished.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - The release of prisoners of conscience has become "a political weapon" and thus something of major concern. Even after they are released, their freedom "is greatly restricted," said Ben Gates, head of theHuman Rights Section of the Assistance Associaiton for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), one of the main dissident groups working on behalf of Burmese political prisoners.

AAPP Secretary Tate Naing is a former leader during the 1988 student uprising, sentenced to three years in prison in 1990 for his political activities. He founded the association, which is based on the Thai-Myanmar border, in order to keep track of the situation of political prisoners in Myanmar.

Yesterday, the Myanmar government led by reformist President Thein Sein ordered the release of 41 people in jail for crimes of opinion and activism of various kinds. It had promised to release "all" political prisoners by the end of the year. Another 44 are still in prison, but should be freed over the next few weeks.

The decision coincides with the opening ceremony of the South East Asian Games, currently underway in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital. For critics, the release is therefore not a coincidence.

The group of prisoners released yesterday include Moe Thway and six other people jailed for protesting against the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine.

Another prominent activist freed is Win Cho. He led the fight against forced land expropriation and was indicted three months ago under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Act.

However, two of the 41 political prisoners released yesterday under a presidential pardon were re-arrested hours later, an activist group reported.

"President Thein Sein has committed to the release of all current political prisoners by the end of 2013," said the head of the AAPP Human Rights Section in an interview with AsiaNews. "It is likely that this will happen over the next three weeks or so. However, their actual freedom following release from prison is greatly restricted.

What is more, "Although it is fair to say the political climate is improving, it is very important to remain aware of the difficulties human rights activists and protesters still face," Ben Gates noted.

"There are around 253 political activists facing trial for their work, under various laws and articles that greatly restrict the space within which human rights workers can operate."

In fact, the aforementioned "releases are not unconditional" in accordance with Article 401 of the Penal Code. "Prisoners released under 401 are greatly restricted in their activities, and face the prospect of any re arrest for political work resulting in them facing very long prison sentences," he explained.

"The removal of these laws and articles is an essential next step if a true democratic transition is to take place," he added.

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