Thursday, February 25, 2010

Myanmar jails women activists as UN envoy visits

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar jailed four women activists on the day a UN special envoy arrived to inspect the military-ruled nation's progress on human rights ahead of polls this year, the opposition said Tuesday.
The women, accused of causing public unrest, were ordered to serve two years with hard labour at a closed hearing in a prison court on Monday, the day UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana flew in to Yangon.
"They were sentenced... for upsetting public peace and tranquillity. We will appeal for their release soon at the Yangon Divisional Court," said defence lawyer Kyaw Hoe, who also represents the National League for Democracy (NLD).
It was not clear if Quintana, who met NLD lawyers and Myanmar judges for talks on Monday as he began his five-day mission, had been made aware of the arrests.
Quintana flew on Tuesday to Rakhine, a state in western Myanmar near the Bangladeshi border, as campaigners denounced the junta's treatment of ethnic groups in the area.
He was due to meet officials and members of non-governmental organisations before travelling by boat on Wednesday to visit a border prison, meet border guards and have dinner with police, Myanmar officials said.
The four jailed women were arrested on October 6 for donating literature to a high-profile monastery in the eastern town of Dagon.
Their arrest came shortly after detained NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi discovered her appeal against the extension of her house arrest had been rejected and as supporters gathered to pray for her release.
Her detention was extended last August by 18 months when she was convicted in connection with an incident in which a US man swam to her lakeside house.
The incident effectively ruled her out of the polls and her punishment sparked global outrage.
At the weekend the authorities freed a top aide to Suu Kyi. That came two days after they imprisoned a US activist and amid criticism of the government's election plans.
Suu Kyi's party deputy, Tin Oo, 83, was freed from seven years in detention on Saturday, and immediately called for more than 2,100 other political prisoners to be freed.
Suu Kyi has said it is too early for the NLD to decide if it will take part in polls dismissed by critics as a sham.
Quintana, making his third trip to Myanmar since his appointment in 2008, is due to return from Rakhine on Thursday to visit Yangon's Insein prison, where many dissidents are held, and to meet representatives of ethnic groups.
Rakhine is home to thousands of Rohingya, an impoverished Muslim minority whom Myanmar refuses to recognise.
Rights groups estimate there are 700,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and some 8,000 are believed to have fled in 2009, often ending up in neighbouring Bangladesh facing persecution, according to a rights group report released Tuesday.
The Arakan Project said a crackdown by Bangladesh last month had triggered a "serious humanitarian crisis", causing food insecurity and hunger for the group, living in squalor in an unofficial refugee camp in Kutuplaong.
Amnesty also released a report Tuesday detailing the repression of activists in Myanmar including Rakhine monks, whom the group said led a 2008 uprising that was bloodily suppressed with the loss of at least 31 lives.
"The 2010 elections will not be legitimate unless the authorities cease to violate the human rights of Myanmar's ethnic minority activists and opponents," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty's Myanmar researcher.
On Friday Quintana will go to the remote capital Naypyidaw to meet the home affairs minister, foreign minister, chief justice, chief attorney general, police chief and human rights officials before leaving Myanmar.
But officials have said there are no plans for the envoy to meet junta leader Than Shwe and he had not yet been given permission to meet Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years since the NLD won the elections in 1990 but was prevented from taking power by the military.