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A prisoner amnesty in Myanmar today does not go nearly far enough as scores of peaceful activists remain behind bars, Amnesty International said. The jailing today of another activist just hours after the amnesty was announced is a stark reminder of how prevalent repression still is in the country. 

The government today announced the release of 102 prisoners, including at least 16 prisoners of conscience who Amnesty International has campaigned for. But a court in Yangon today also sentenced peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee, 43, to six months in prison for “online defamation”. He was first arrested in October 2015 for a Facebook post showing someone stepping on a photo of Myanmar Army Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

“Today’s events perfectly sum up how the Myanmar authorities give with one hand and take with the other. Just hours after the prisoner amnesty was announced, an activist has been sentenced to six months in jail for nothing but a harmless Facebook post,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher. 

“Although we are delighted for those who walk free today, scores more remain behind bars while hundreds of other peaceful activists are on bail facing jail time. 

“Amnesties like the one today have little positive long-term effect as long as the same repressive practices fuelling arbitrary arrests and detention of activists continue. The guilty verdict against Patrick Kum Jaa Lee is outrageous and must be overturned.” 

Among the prisoners of conscience released today are: Philip Blackwood, who in 2015 was sentenced – alongside Thun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin – to two and a half years in prison for “insulting religion” and another charge after using an image of the Buddha to promote a night club; and 13 members of the Michaungkan community jailed in 2015 for protesting in a land dispute. 

Amnesty International is aware of almost 100 other prisoners of conscience still behind bars. 

“It’s heartening that the men and women released today can go back to their lives and families, but the fact is none of them should have been charged in the first place. If President Thein Sein is serious about leaving a positive legacy, he must clear the country’s jails of all prisoners of conscience once and for all,” said Laura Haigh. 

“Despite the optimism around the recent elections, today’s verdict is also a clear reminder that peacefully criticising the military is still very much off limits in Myanmar. The new government, which is meant to take power at the end of March, must do much more to ensure full respect for the human right to freedom of expression.” 

Background 

Prisoners of conscience released in today’s amnesty include: 

  • Naung Naung, member of the Movement for Democratic Current Force (MDCF), sentenced in October 2014 to two years and four months’ imprisonment for protesting without authorization and for distributing leaflets stating that Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had been elected as an interim government. 
  • Thirteen members of the Michaungkan community in Yangon sentenced at the end of last year to seven months in prison for participating in a series of peaceful protests relating to a land dispute. 
  • Phillip Blackwood, sentenced to two years and six months in prison in March 2015 for “insulting religion” after an image of the Buddha wearing headphones was posted on social media to promote a Yangon bar. Amnesty International has so far been unable to confirm if Thun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, who were jailed in same case, have also been released. 
  • Student Naing Ye Wai, sentenced to prison in 2015 for peacefully protesting in Mandalay for the release of all detained students and for the newly adopted National Education Law to be amended. 

Amnesty International is aware of almost 100 prisoners of conscience still behind bars, including: 

Phyoe Phyoe Aung, Secretary General of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), currently on trial along dozens of other peaceful student protesters and their supporters for protesting against the National Education Law in 2015; five media workers from the Unity Weekly magazine who were jailed for publishing an article about an alleged chemical weapons factory in 2014; and writer Htin Lin Oo, sentenced in 2015 to two years in prison after he gave a speech criticizing the use of Buddhism to promote religious discrimination.