April 25, 2014

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire MP has backed ‘a comprehensive and transparent mechanism’ to review cases of political prisoners in Burma.  He voiced his support in a letter responding to letters from the public about political prisoners in Burma.

Burma Campaign UK has been asking supporters to write to the British government, calling on British Ministers to pressure the Burmese government to establish a permanent independent review mechanism to assess cases where people could be in prison because of their political activities. Hugo Swire also backed another key demand of campaigners, agreeing that ‘repealing…repressive laws will be vital if Burma is to continue on its path to greater democracy.’

Burma Campaign UK has been running a campaign – No Political Prisoner Left Behind – highlighting the fact that political prisoners remain in jail, and that repressive laws used to jail them remain in place. The demand for an independent review mechanism which can review cases and ensure political prisoners are freed is a key demand of the campaign.

Following international pressure, President Thein Sein did establish a committee to review cases of political prisoners, but the committee was dominated by the government, and had no powers to properly investigate cases and order the release of prisoners. Instead members of the committee had to use their own resources to investigate cases, and ask the President to release political prisoners. Although the President has released hundreds of political prisoners, they have only been released conditionally, and he has refused to release around 30 political prisoners identified by the committee.

“A new, independent committee, with comprehensive powers to investigate cases and order the release of political prisoners, needs to be established,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK. “We are pleased that the British government is supporting a comprehensive review mechanism, but they need to go further and apply real pressure to ensure it is established.”

Examples of the failure of the British government’s current soft engagement policy to influence President Thein Sein are evident in the statement released by Hugo Swire. He highlights how he has raised the cases of individual political prisoners, but they are still in jail. He says he has asked for the repeal of repressive laws, but they remain in place. Thein Sein did not keep the promise he made when visiting the UK, that he would release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

“Political leaders in Burma, the international community, and human rights activists all need to work together to ensure a proper mechanism is established which can address the issue of political prisoners once and for all”, said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon. “Burma can never be free and democratic if we have political prisoners still in jail.”

Further information:

A permanent independent political prisoner review mechanism should:
*    Be underpinned by legislation.
*    Be independent of executive government.
*    Involve international expertise.
*    Involve genuine civil society representatives, including across different ethnic and religious groups.
*    Abide by international human rights law, covenants, treaties and declarations.
*    Have judicial powers to order the release of those assessed to be in jail for reasons of political activities or beliefs, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.
*    Have the power to proactively choose to investigate cases of those in detention.
*    Receive applications from or on behalf of people believed to be in detention for political reasons.
*    Have the power to compel the police, security forces, military, prison authorities and government departments to co-operate with investigations.
*    Receive adequate government funding to fulfil its responsibilities.
*    Award adequate and appropriate compensation to those wrongfully detained.
*    Refer cases to the police where the wrongful detention of prisoners involved suspected illegality on the part of those involved in the arrest, sentencing, detention, and treatment of the prisoner.
*    Make recommendations to government and Parliament regarding the application, revision and repeal of laws which are used to jail people for reasons of political activities or beliefs, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.

A statement by members of the European Burma Network calling for a permanent independent review mechanism is available here.

Statement by British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire MP:

Thank you for the hundreds of letters and emails sent to the Foreign Secretary in recent weeks about political prisoners in Burma. I am replying both as Minister responsible for our relations with Burma, and as someone who shares your concerns about this.

The cause of political prisoners has long been one the UK has championed, and it is one that we continue to raise at the highest levels. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary discussed political prisoners with President Thein Sein, alongside the full range of our concerns on human rights and ethnic issues, during the President’s visit to London in July 2013.

I warmly welcome the release of many hundreds of political prisoners under this Burmese government. It is important that we commend positive steps as much as we draw attention to areas of continuing concern. But I do of course remain very concerned about those who remain in jail, including recognised prisoners of conscience such as Dr Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung. We will continue to emphasise to senior members of the Burmese government that even one political prisoner is one too many.

On my most recent visit to Burma in January, I urged continued dialogue between the government, political parties, ethnic armed groups and civil society to resolve these remaining cases as a matter of urgency. I have also lobbied directly on individual cases – for example raising the detention of Dr Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung with the President’s Office.

We remain deeply concerned by credible reports following the 2012 violence in Rakhine State of mass arbitrary detentions, torture of detainees, and trials which did not follow due legal process. These have not been addressed. We will continue to call for a comprehensive and transparent mechanism to review existing cases and to support the reintegration of former political prisoners.

We also continue to call on the government to ensure that democratic activists are able to voice their opinions freely and without fear of arrest, and to emphasise the importance of press freedom in a democracy. The recent detention of journalists, arrested in the course of carrying out their work, highlights that there is still work to be done. I urged the Speaker of Parliament to repeal those laws which are not in line with democratic standards. As many of you noted in your letters, repealing these repressive laws will be vital if Burma is to continue on its path to greater democracy. We will also continue to encourage constitutional change in order to support the growth of independent and effective judicial systems.

We are strong supporters of the transition in Burma and we welcome the progress that has been made. However, we are under no illusion as to the scale of the challenges that remain. Our Embassy in Rangoon remains in close contact with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and other civil society networks in support of their work to identify and advocate for those that have been unjustly convicted.

My speech in January at the British Council in Rangoon made clear the many concerns we continue to have on political prisoners and other human rights issues.

On 8 April, the British Government published UK Activities in Burma – a document which sets out for the first time the range of work in Burma being undertaken by the Foreign Office, Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and UK Trade and Investment. It sets out the importance of Burma to the UK, our five key areas of work and the main activities we are doing under each of them.

If you require any further information, please consult the UK and Burma website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter: @UKinBurma

Thank you for your support in highlighting these issues in Burma. Human rights – not least the plight of political prisoners – will remain at the heart of British policy. We will remain a vocal advocate for change in Burma and continue to press for action to resolve what are issues of real concern.

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