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March 18, 2009

Myanmar defies UN calls for release of political prisoners
Authorities in Myanmar have arrested five members of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the Associated Press quoted a spokesman as saying Tuesday.

The arrests came a day after the UN called for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners in the military-run country.

Among those arrested was Kyi Lwin, who has not been an active party member since suffering a stroke a year ago, said Han Tha Myint, spokesman of the National League for Democracy. Police took him from his home Sunday without explanation.

In a report published Monday, UN human rights investigator Tomas Ojea Quintana had called on the junta to release its 2,100 or so political prisoners before elections planned for 2010, the country's first ballot in two decades.

Quintana, presenting his report Tuesday at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, said Myanmar's government should release all "prisoners of conscience" - starting with the elderly, the sick and political leaders - because their detention breaches basic human rights.

In recent months, the junta has locked away pro-democracy activists in an apparent attempt to clear away dissent before the promised election. Military courts have sentenced hundreds of pro-democracy activists to prison terms of up to 104 years.

"The government should understand that for the international community to see these elections as meaningful, they should start respecting human rights and adopt measures in this regard," Quintana told reporters after his presentation.

Responding to the report, Myanmar's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva said his country holds no political prisoners. "In fact, these are only individuals who are serving prison terms for breaking the existing laws of Myanmar," said Wunna Maung Lwin.

The others arrested between March 6-13 include Myint Myint San, also known as Ma Cho, a member of the National League for Democracy's Social Support Committee, which helps support political prisoners and their families. The three others are Sein Hlaing, Shwe Gyo and Thein Lwin, who are active party members, the league's spokesman said.

Han Tha Myint said the UN call to release all prisoners offered "great moral support." Quintana told reporters that he would look into the circumstances of the new arrests.

"The government of Myanmar is part of the United Nations, so it should start respecting human rights," he said. Quintana visited Myanmar last month but was not allowed to meet Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the last 19 years.
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