A consortium of rights groups has issued an open letter urging U.S. President Barack Obama to press Myanmar on its vow to release all political prisoners by the end of the year, saying the ongoing arrest of activists in the country puts the government’s claim into question.
Myanmar President Thein Sein has released more than 1,000 political prisoners since he came to power in 2011 following five decades of military misrule.
In July he pledged to free all political prisoners by the end of this month, in part to address concerns by the U.S. and other Western nations about his commitment to reform.
But in a letter signed by 42 organizations and dated Thursday, Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) charged that authorities are continuing to arrest farmers, activists, human rights defenders, and ethnic minorities “at alarmingly high rates.”
It said the arrests “discredit the [Myanmar] government’s claim that all political prisoners … will be released by the end of December 2013.”
“The Burmese government … continues to arrest, prosecute, sentence, and imprison, under both old and new laws, a growing number of people for exercising their rights to free speech, association, and assembly and speaking out against government abuses,” it said.
While Thein Sein has granted many individuals conditional amnesty since his July announcement to free all political prisoners by the end of the year, “hundreds more are currently being processed by Burma’s courts or detained without charges,” FIDH said.
It said that the government has barred Myanmar’s Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee from recognizing many of them as political prisoners, particularly ethnic Kachins and Rohingyas.
“Even those who are fortunate enough to be recognized as political prisoners and subsequently released are subject to intimidation and re-arrest.”
FIDH gave the example of Naw Ohn Hla, who was granted amnesty last month after being arrested in August this year for organizing protests against government abuses at the controversial China-backed Letpadaung copper mine—only to be rearrested on Dec. 10 and charged with sedition for continuing her activism.
All of the political prisoners released on Thein Sein’s watch have been freed conditionally, meaning they can be re-arrested at any time if they are seen by the government to have violated the terms of their parole, FIDH said.
Once re-arrested, they are subject to serving both their new sentence and the remainder of their previous one.
FIDH said that the Myanmar’s legal framework allows authorities to specifically target individuals who speak out against human rights abuses connected to the government’s development projects.
The government arrested 63 activists from May to October alone, mostly under laws that restrict freedom of expression, speech, and assembly, such as Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code.
“[Article 18] has been repeatedly employed against communities expressing discontent over land confiscations, forced displacement, environmental and cultural destruction, inadequate compensation, and other abuses resulting from government and foreign-backed development projects,” FIDH said.
At least 149 farmers, who FIDH said had been “stripped of their livelihoods by development projects,” were arrested between June and August this year, though the rights group said that “hundreds more” may have been taken in undocumented arrests.
Most of the farmers were charged under Article 18 and criminal trespassing laws for continuing to plow land after disputed confiscations, it said.
“These trespassing charges have been highly politicized and unjust; the government selectively enforces trespassing laws against farmers protesting land confiscations,” the rights group said.
FIDH also slammed the Myanmar government for having “marginalized” the existence of Kachin and Rohingya political prisoners.
“These ethnic political prisoners have suffered great abuse at the hands of the government—imprisoned, and in most cases, also tortured, starved, or even killed for their ethnicity alone,” it said.
“The government’s political prisoners committee has failed to publicly recognize or advocate on behalf of these most vulnerable political prisoners.”
FIDH said that government obstruction of access has made it difficult to verify the exact numbers of ethnic political prisoners, but it said that many Kachin are currently detained under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act and that most of the estimated 1,000 Rohingya detained in Rakhine state following ethnic violence there in June last year remain in prison.
“The hundreds of detained Rohingya who have been charged and convicted have faced great discrimination, and have been denied due process rights, legal representation, definite sentences, and trial opportunities,” it said, adding that many of them are likely innocent.
Around 200 Rohingya arrested following the June 2012 violence remain in custody without charges, and at least hundreds more are being held across Rakhine state for charges such as “unauthorized” marriages and immigration or travel charges.
FIDH and the 41 other signatories—which included Physicians for Human Rights, U.S. Campaign for Burma, and Freedom House—called on the Obama administration to “take immediate, pro-active steps to hold the Burmese government to its commitment to promptly release all political prisoners.”
It listed recommendations which it said outlined “achievable steps the Burmese government must take in order to release all political prisoners, end the practice of political arrests, and build a legal atmosphere compatible with Burma’s international law obligations.”
Among them was Myanmar’s unconditional release of all political prisoners, removal of convictions for released political prisoners, providing proper due process and legal representation for prisoners, pardoning of individuals charged or sentenced under Article 18, and suspension of targeting farmers protesting land confiscation.
FIDH said the U.S. should offer support to Myanmar to revise its laws relating to freedoms of assembly and expression to bring them into line with international standards and withhold additional trade and investment benefits until such laws have been amended.
Last week, Myanmar freed 41 political prisoners, the majority of whom had been sentenced under Article 18 for protesting without permission, according to the Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee.
According to a list compiled by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), known as the AAPP (B), an additional 41 political prisoners remain jailed in Myanmar, while more than 200 people are facing political charges that could lead to jail time.