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UN Investigator Again Calls for Release of Burmese Political Prisoners - 2003-04-03


A U.N. human rights expert is calling for the unconditional release of more than 1,000 political prisoners being held by the governing military junta in Burma.

In a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, U.N. Special Investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro acknowledged human rights have improved somewhat in Burma, but he said the progress has been very limited.

Mr. Pinheiro said the conditions of Burma's political prisoners have improved slightly. He said physical punishment, such as beatings, has stopped.

But Mr. Pinheiro said the improvements are not widespread. According to the investigator, political prisoners in Burma continue to be worse off than criminal offenders.

"Prison is hell. Political prisoners live in hell, especially very old prisoners," he said. "This is something unacceptable. It is a torture to be enclosed in small spaces with very poor food, with very difficult access to medicine. I may assure you that my patience has arrived to the limit."

Mr. Pinheiro is calling for Burma's government to issue a general amnesty. He said there cannot be any reconciliation or credible political transition in Burma until all its political prisoners are freed.

Mr. Pinheiro devotes part of his report to allegations of rape in Burma's Shan State, allegations that have been supported by a women's group in Shan. The group, called the Shan Women's Action Network, accuses the Burmese military of systematically raping Shan women.

A member of the Action Network, Charm Tong, was at the briefing Mr. Pinheiro gave in Geneva. She expressed concerns about the problems investigators can pose for the women of Shan State. Earlier this year, she said, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International came to investigate the rape allegations, but she said Shan villagers were threatened with torture by the military if they spoke to them.

Human rights investigators, Ms. Tong said, must be aware that the women of Shan cannot speak freely. "At this time in Burma and under this government, the Burmese military regime, we are afraid that the security for the rape survivors, the women and the witnesses will be very difficult to ensure their safety since the military have the power," she said.

U.N. expert Pinheiro said he hopes to visit Shan State in a future trip to Burma. But he said if it appears unlikely that he will get the necessary guarantees from the government to ensure the safety of the Shan people, he will cancel the investigation.