Myanmar: Rights activists excluded from largest prisoner release in years

Responding to the failure to release prisoners of conscience and activists jailed solely for exercising their rights in Myanmar during a presidential amnesty of nearly 25,000 prisoners, Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy, said:

“It’s appalling that prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists were largely excluded from yesterday’s presidential amnesty. They should not be in prison in the first place and are victims of repression, harassment and arbitrary arrests by the Myanmar authorities, both the civilian-led government and the military.

It’s appalling that prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists were largely excluded from yesterday’s presidential amnesty.
Clare Algar, Senior Director for Research, Advocacy & Policy

“Moreover, crowded prisons and detention centres are a very dangerous hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks.  As Myanmar responds to the unfolding health crisis, it is more important than ever that the authorities take urgent measures to protect all those who are deprived of their liberty, especially by releasing all individuals who are held simply for peacefully exercising their rights.

“All human rights defenders and activists remaining in prison solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly should be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Background

On 17 April, Myanmar’s president released 24,896 prisoners to mark Myanmar’s New Year.

The president cited humanitarian grounds as part of the reason for the release. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) says it was the largest amnesty in a decade.

But several prisoners of conscience and activists whose cases have been documented by Amnesty International were not included.

Politically motivated arrests and imprisonment are made possible by Myanmar’s legal framework, which comprises laws that arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. While the authorities have made some efforts to amend or repeal repressive laws, many still fall far short of complying with international human rights standards.

As Myanmar’s government focuses its attention on the COVID-19 crisis in the country and as it heads towards elections in November, the authorities must ensure a safe environment in which it is possible to defend and promote human rights and report on human rights violations without fear of intimidation, punishment, or any reprisal.

While this year’s release was higher than 2019, Myanmar’s prisons are still crowded, unsanitary, and lacking in health services.

Social distancing and self-isolation are virtually impossible in prisons over capacity and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the problem of prison overcrowding is neglected during the COVID-19 outbreak.