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UN Rights Envoy Calls on Burma to Release All Political Prisoners - 2003-03-26


The United Nations human rights envoy said Burma's government should move political reforms forward by releasing all political prisoners. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro expresses his growing frustration after discovering a listening device during his interviews with Burmese political prisoners.

U.N. human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said Burma's political reforms are going simply too slowly. To speed up change, he said, all political prisoners should be freed.

"I think there is no excuse to delay the unconditional and immediate release of political prisoners. It's very difficult to have a political dialogue - national reconciliation - with hundreds of political prisoners [behind bars]. It's necessary that the government take some bold steps to release these prisoners," Mr. Pinheiro said.

Mr. Pinheiro spoke to VOA in Bangkok Wednesday, after cutting short his visit to Burma. He left suddenly on Monday, after discovering a listening device taping during his interviews with political prisoners.

Mr. Pinheiro said the incident has broken a climate of trust built up during his earlier prison visits. "Usually I meet in the cells or in any other place I decide. In the previous four visits - that was my practice. But there was a climate and atmosphere of trust (so) I accepted to do the interviews in a room that was offered to me," he said.

That room was where he found the listening device.

There are more than 1,000 political prisoners in Burma. Through U.N.-brokered talks, the government has released about 600 prisoners.

Mr. Pinheiro indicated that he is so frustrated by the Burmese government's slow reform efforts that he is questioning his own future. He said he has not decided if he will continue as U.N. envoy.

Burma's government said it is not responsible for the bugging. It has expressed regret for the incident and hope that United Nations cooperation will continue.

The government hopes to persuade Western nations that it has improved its human rights performance enough that they will ease economic sanctions against the country.

Mr. Pinheiro said the government has made some progress, and now allows international rights groups into the country. He makes a report on Burma to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on March 31.