Thursday, January 22, 2009

Eternally recorded 24 political prisoners



Freedom of Expression on Trial in Insein Prison

A group of political prisoners in Insein Prison, the largest prison in Myanmar, were given additional sentences in 1996, while still imprisoned. The authorities sentenced them for attempting to send information about human rights violations to the United Nations and circulating news and writing in prison. They received at least seven further years’ imprisonment in an unfair trial, under a law which effectively criminalizes freedom of expression and opinion, by making it an offence to circulate, or intend to circulate "false news". More than 20 persons were given additional prison terms. Nine are still imprisoned. Aung Kyaw Oo, Ba Myo Thein; Bo Bo aka Ko Ko Oo aka Ko Bo Bo; Kyaw Min Yu, aka Jimmy; Phyo Min Thein; Soe Myint, aka Saya Soe; Tun Win; Win Tin (pictured) and Dr. Zaw Myint Maung were reportedly arrested between 1989 and 1992 and have been sentenced to sentences of at least 20 years’ imprisonment. During prison officials’ investigation they were ill-treated, and many have health problems, exacerbated by their treatment in prison and conditions of detention. Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and calls for their immediate and unconditional release from detention.
The prisoners are reported to have formed committees to gather information on human rights violations in the prison, to circulate news among prisoners, and to prepare special commemorative magazines with articles, poems and cartoons. Prisoners were not allowed access to writing or reading materials, so any such activity had to be carried out in secrecy, and with recourse to alternative writing materials

Defending human rights
Prisoners gathered information on human rights violations in prison, including inadequate access to medical treatment, torture and ill-treatment, and poor conditions. They intended to send this information to the United Nations Secretary General. Prison authorities found the document hidden in the handle of a bucket in a prison cell. Authorities accused Kyaw Min Yu, a 36 year old physics student and student union leader arrested in 1989, of initiating the project to gather information about human rights violations and to send it to the United Nations. Phyo Min Thein, a student leader, admitted at the trial that he had contributed information to the document on human rights violations, and countered authorities’ charges that this was "false", by saying that it represented the truth of his experiences in prison, where he had been held since 1991. U Win Tin, a former editor aged 75, similarly reportedly stated to the court that he did what

"he believed was right..the facts describing the situation with regard to the treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement and other matters, were correct, and were beyond the limits of regulations outlined in the prison manual….the loss of human rights and torture in prison were all genuine and that the prosecution could not prove that these points were inaccurate. "
He also reportedly stated to the court that
"the statement in the letter to the UN that ‘ political prisoners did not receive sufficient medication in prison’ was a true statement, (and). that he himself had not received sufficient medication"

Authorities said that Nyunt Zaw (who reportedly died in prison of heart disease in 1999, at the age of 32) copied the information on an Ajinomoto (a brand of monosodium glutamate flavour powder) plastic bag, to be sent to the UN. Ba Myo Thein, 50, an assistant supervisor in an agricultural office, was accused of signing it.
The prisoners were also charged with writing a message on a prison shirt to the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. It reportedly stated "political prisoners welcome the Vienna Conference…the rays of hope for human rights will be brightened in Burma' and that 'we are still under detention in the SLORC prison where no human rights are practised'. The authorities accused Phyo Min Thein of translating the text into English, and Kyaw Min Yu of signing it.
Journalism on Trial
Prisoners were not allowed to read newspapers. However, they arranged for the overseas publication Time, Newsweek, and other newspapers to be smuggled into the prison, and distributed them among themselves. Tun Win, c. 50, and Ko Ko Oo, aka Bo Bo Oo, were accused of smuggling a radio into the prison. At the trial, authorities said that Kyaw Min Yu had asked Nyunt Zaw "who had beautiful handwriting" to transcribe the news from overseas radio stations, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and the Voice of America (VOA). Authorities repeatedly stated at the trial that these radio stations "broadcast false news about Burma" and a law enforcement official testified that "news from the DVB was damaging to the country as it had been fabricated." Kyaw Min Yu, in his defence, stated that radio stations such as the BBC and VOA were "good for the people" and broadcast "only correct and confirmed news". He confirmed that he had written news in a bulletin with transcripts of these broadcasts that was circulated every week in the prison, after his handwriting was found on it, but said that he should not be considered to be guilty of the crime of disseminating false news, because the contents were all "based on true accounts." Ko Ko Oo aka Bo Bo Oo, aka Ko Bo Bo was also charged with contributing to the bulletin, which also included information from Radio Myanmar, and news from relatives visiting the prison. Authorities accused Aung Kyaw Oo, a history student and student union organizer, with distributing it.

Writing on trial

Prisoners also produced two handwritten magazines, with poems, articles, illustrations and cartoons. One commemorated the Diamond Jubilee of Yangon University, and had a crocheted cover, and another called "New Blood Wave" The authorities stated that although this material was hand-written, they were still considered to be magazines or literature, and therefore subject to laws which penalize the circulation of information without approval by the official censor. The court also stated that the content was aimed "at discrediting the state and presenting inaccurate information" and that the magazines’ "content and style of writing in the magazines was "detrimental to the state." U Win Tin was one of the contributors, and is alleged to have written an article entitled "Students, Youth and Human Right," which he later denied writing. Aung Kyaw Oo admitted at trial to writing a poem called "Together with Infinite Strength," and said that if this were a crime and he were convicted of it, the court should rule to grant prisoners the right to reading and writing materials in prison. Phyo Min Thein, Zaw Myint Maung and U Win Tin were accused of writing a poem, and denied the charge – U Win Tin on the basis that he that he was too old to write poetry. A poem alleged to have been written by Zaw Myint Maung was quoted in court:

" Let it be known to
those in the military who hunger for power,
those demonic military,
wishing to build a military nation,
under a military democracy and military politics,
that we shall resist defiantly with the strength of the fighting peacock,
may it be eternally recorded in history!'"
Soe Myint also known as Saya Soe, a veterinary doctor, was charged with and denied writing a song in the New Blood Wave magazine, and Ba Myo Thein was accused of drawing illustrations for the Diamond Jubilee Magazine. Ba Myo Thein stated that the evidence for this charge had not been obtained in accordance with regulations.
Other supposed offences were mentioned at the trial, including taking part in a ceremony to commemorate the deaths in custody of two political prisoners. Zaw Myint Maung reportedly stated in court that the bringing of charges against him was politically motivated, and that he had not carried out any of the acts with which he was charged.
Torture in Interrogation, and poor conditions of detention in dog cells
While they were investigating in order to determine which prisoners had taken part in these activities, authorities held prisoners for up to three months in cells designed for military dogs, without bedding, and in solitary confinement. They were periodically denied food and water, and also refused the right to receive visits from relatives. There is concern that the way in which defendants were treated may have exacerbated their already poor health conditions.
At their trial, U Win Tin stated that evidence presented against him in court was a "confession" extracted from him by torture; Zaw Myint Maung testified that he had been denied water during interrogation, and that authorities had illegally taken a handwriting sample from him and that he had been asked to write a phrase "designed to damage his political dignity". Other defendants testified that they had been tortured or in other ways ill-treated during interrogation, including by being taken hooded from the prison cell, and tortured including by being threatened and beaten by up to six officials.

Unfair Trial and Unfair Legislation

Their trial also did not match international standards for fairness. Prisoners were not granted legal counsel and confessions extracted by torture were allowed as evidence in court.

Defendants sentenced under section 5 [e] of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, a piece of security legislation, which effectively criminalizes the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and opinion, by allowing authorities to imprison people for either disseminating or intending to disseminate information that is "false". The terms of this legislation go beyond restrictions permissible by authorities on freedom of expression under international law. Its vague terms are open to misinterpretation and abuse, as has been the case in the sentencing of these prisoners, and in previous use of the law to imprison comedians for telling political jokes.
Basic principles of international law on freedom of expression and opinion guarantee the freedom to hold, receive and impart all forms of opinions, ideas and information, and should not be bounded by arbitrary definitions about such opinions’ factual quality. In the trial, authorities maintained that foreign news broadcasts, poems, short stories and other opinions expressed in articles by the prisoners were "false" or incorrect information. The judgement was handed down solely on the basis that authorities considered information collected or disseminated by prisoners – including information about human rights violations, news from overseas broadcasts, poems, articles, cartoons and short stories – to be false information, and also on authorities’ untested consideration that prisoners knew this information to be incorrect.

Poor Health

Win Tin is in a poor state of health, suffering from spondylitis, a heart condition, haemorrhoids, and other ailments. Others of the group who are or have been in poor states of health include: Zaw Myint Maung who has suffered from hepatitis and other health problems; Soe Myint suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Aung Kyaw Oo reportedly has had liver and kidney disease, Bo Bo Oo asthma, Tun Win gout, and Phyo Min Thein has had various health problems. At least one of the prisoners tried with them, Nyunt Zaw, died at 32, reportedly of heart disease in 1999. He had been held in solitary confinement, and is reported not to have had adequate medical treatment. Tun Win, who is held in Thayawaddy Prison and Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, held in Myitkyina Prison, are being held extremely far from their families. Prisoners are dependent on food and medicines to supplement their prison diet, and the time and cost of travel to distant prisoners mean that they receive less support from their families.

Previous sentences

The majority of these prisoners have already served out the sentences for which they were originally incarcerated.

U Win Tin, 75, is serving a total sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. He was arrested on 4 July1989 on account of his prominence in the political opposition. He is an editor and translator.
Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, 51, a medical doctor and NLD MP elect has been imprisoned since 1990, and was arrested for his alleged participation in discussions about the formation of a parallel government in Mandalay. He was sentenced at a military tribunal with no legal representation, and is believed to be serving a total sentence of 22 years’ imprisonment. He is believed to have been deprived of food and sleep during interrogation in 1990.
Among the prisoners are student activists, who had taken part in student politics. Aung Kyaw Oo, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) has already served his sentence for suspected contact with armed opposition, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). He was arrested in 1991 and is reportedly not scheduled to be released until 2010; Kyaw Min Yu (aka Jimmy) was reportedly arrested in1989, and sentenced for his prominent role in student union activism and the opposition political party Democratic Party for a New Society. He is reported to have been sentenced to a total of at least 22 years’ imprisonment and is not scheduled to be released until 2011. Phyo Min Thein was arrested in December 1991 in connection with peaceful demonstrations by students after opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is serving a total sentence of 14 years imprisonment, making him eligible to be released now, with time off for parole.
Ba Myo Thein and Soe Myint, aka Saya Soe, were sentenced for alleged links with the Communist Party of Burma, and have served their sentences already. Soe Myint, a veterinary surgeon is believed to have been also sentenced for composing a song commemorating the election victory of the NLD. He was arrested in 1992 and has reportedly been sentenced to at least 22 years’ imprisonment in total. Ba Myo Thein was arrested in 1991 and is serving a total sentence to at least 19 or 22 years’ imprisonment.
Bo Bo Oo, aka Ko Ko Oo, was sentenced to 19 or 22 years in total, and was arrested in 1991 – it is not known in which connection. Tun Win is reported to have been arrested in connection with activities on behalf of an armed opposition group, and to be serving a sentence to life imprisonment. Amnesty International has no information on the charges against him.

Prison Conditions
While in recent years, following ICRC visits to prisoners, some political prisoners have had access to reading materials, this is not universally applied, and what they may read is restricted. Nor, do prisoners have access to writing materials.

- expressing concern at the imprisonment of Aung Kyaw Oo, Ba Myo Thein; Bo Bo aka Ko Ko Oo; Kyaw Min Yu, aka Jimmy; Phyo Min Thein; Soe Myint, aka Saya Soe; Tun Win; Win Tin and Zaw Myint Maung for peacefully acting in protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and engaging in the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and opinion;
- urging authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them from detention;
- urging authorities to hold prisoners in conditions which meet international standards, including with access to reading and writing materials and all necessary and appropriate medical treatment, in accordance with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
- Urging that authorities act in the spirit of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and recognize that everyone has the right
I) to promote and strive for the protection of human rights nationally and internationally, and to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights,
II) to unhindered access to and communication with international bodies with general or special competence to receive and consider communications on matters of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
III) to obtain, receive and hold information and to publish, impart or disseminate to others views and information on all such rights and freedoms, and to draw public attention to these matters,
- urging authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against threats, discrimination, and any other penalties, including arbitrary arrest for taking part in such peaceful activities,
- Urging authorities to end the use of security legislation used to imprison these prisoners which subjects rights and freedoms to greater restrictions than necessary under international law,


General Than Shwe
State Peace and Development Council
Ministry of Defence
Dagon Post Office
Yangon, Union of Myanmar

Faxes: + 95 1 652 624
Salutation: Dear General

Lt General Soe Win
Prime Minister
State Peace and Development Council
Ministry of Defence
Dagon Post Office
Yangon, Union of Myanmar
Faxes: + 95 1 652 624
Salutation: Dear Prime Minister

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