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Up to 1,000 political prisoners remain incarcerated in Burma, including students, activists and monks, says Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) who detailed their findings in a recently published report.
AAPP has confirmed that 494 individuals remain in jail, while another 465 are strongly suspected to still be behind bars.
“The current number of political prisoners is now at pre Saffron levels, a number that at the time was abhorrent enough to impose economic sanctions on Burma and cause international outrage,” reported the group.
One of the confirmed prisoners is Pyae Phyo Aung – a journalist accused of having links with foreign and illegal media. He was imprisoned for using a fake student card last year.
Arbitrary arrests, harassment and surveillance of former prisoners have also continued during the past few months. At least three re-arrests have been documented since January 2012, including that of dissident monk Gambira and Karen leader Mahn Nyein Maung.
The Burmese government claims that all remaining prisoners are guilty of terrorism or using explosives. AAPP claims that many activists have been wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they never committed under Burma’s arbitrary laws.
“The government purposefully imprisons political activists under those acts in order to defame and criminalise them and to claim that political activists are dangerous elements to the state,” Aung Khaing Min from AAPP told DVB.
Than Saw, one of Burma’s longest serving political prisoners, remains incarcerated 22 years after being convicted for his role in a bomb plot, even though another convict confessed to the crime and has been released.
Both the US and EU have moved to ease sanctions against Burma in the wake of its widely lauded by-elections dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy who earned a landslide victory. While voices on both sides have called for further prisoners releases, campaigners are worried that the issue will get sidelined as global players jostle for a foothold in Burma’s pending “gold rush”.
“With extensive media coverage, both domestically and internationally, on the 1 April by-elections, the issue of the continued incarceration of political prisoners and the harassment those released face has taken a back seat,” reported AAPP.
A number of countries in the EU, including Germany and Italy, are keen to see all sanctions lifted on 23 April when the bloc’s foreign ministers will meet to discuss the issue. In January, non-EU member Norway became the first European country to drop its investment ban on Burma.
“There’s a lot of momentum to remove the sanctions as quickly as possible, beginning even before the April foreign ministers’ meeting,” a senior official told Reuters.
The business lobby has already been stepping up efforts to have sanctions completely removed. Business Europe, a group representing 20 million companies across 35 countries, met at the end of February to draw up an advocacy strategy.
“The agreement for the release of political prisoners should be reached before lifting or easing their sanctions,” said Aung Khaing Min. “If not, the release of political prisoners will be difficult.”