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Amnesty Urges Burma to Free 1,200 Political Prisoners

Amnesty International has urged Burma's military government to release more than 1,200 political prisoners, and to throw out many laws used to justify detaining them. But even as the group spoke in Bangkok, 12 pro-democracy activists were being arrested in Rangoon.

Following its first-ever visit to Burma, Amnesty called on the Burmese government to get rid of laws that date as far back as the British colonial era.

Demelza Stubbings, the human rights organization's Asia-Pacific program director, said the main focus of the delegation's visit was to learn more about the country's justice system, which she and her colleague found inadequate. "The visit confirmed what Amnesty International believed to be the case, namely that policing, trial procedures and conditions of detention fall short of international law and standards, and that many of the laws and directives, which have the status of law, criminalize the exercise of certain fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association and assembly," she said.

Ms. Stubbings did say, based on interviews with released prisoners, that conditions for political prisoners had been improving steadily since 1999. She said her organization would send a letter to Burma's military rulers within three months calling for the scraping of laws that deny prisoners the right to a lawyer, medical care and family visits.

She also called on the government to release "immediately and unconditionally" all prisoners of conscience. Amnesty estimates there are between 1,200 and 1,300.

She said that during their 10 days in Burma, she and her colleague held "frank" talks with ministers, police and prison officials, as well as prisoners and members of the pro-democracy opposition. They met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and independence leader, but at her request the contents of that conversation were kept confidential.

As the Amnesty delegation was speaking in Bangkok, word came that 12 members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, had been arrested in Rangoon for alleged anti-government activities.

Aung Zaw, Burmese editor of the on-line The Irawaddy magazine, called Amnesty International's report "disappointing," saying it lacked the group's usual strong condemnation of Burmese government policies.

"If Amnesty's stance is getting weaker, that's a wrong message they are sending to inside Burma and outside Burma. That's very sad," concluded Aung Zaw. "But at the same time, hopefully Amnesty will keep up the pressure and monitoring work on Burma."

Ms. Stubbings said the human rights organization viewed this first visit as the beginning of a process, and hoped to return to Burma before the end of the year.