More than 100 political prisoners freed following a supposed amnesty in Myanmar were re-arrested shortly after their release according to a rights group, in what activists have likened to “mental torture” for the detainees and their families.
Some relatives, who had waited outside prisons expecting to be reunited with their loved ones, managed to catch a glimpse of them at the gates, before they were handcuffed and taken away. Others spent hours together, only to be separated again.
The Myanmar junta, which has been repeatedly condemned for detaining thousands of its critics, including children, promised a major release of political prisoners on Monday. It stated it would pardon 1,316 people and drop charges against 4,320 people who had “participated in protests”.
The military, however, gave no details of who would be freed, or what the terms of release would be.
Human Rights Watch has since described the releases, which have taken place over the past week, as “limited in scope”. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP), an advocacy group, has confirmed that 324 people have been freed. More than 7,031 political prisoners are still being held in detention, according to AAPP Burma. This includes anyone suspected of criticising or questioning the February military coup – from medics, to journalists, politicians and activists.
AAPP said it was aware of 110 cases where people were issued with further charges and re-arrested after their supposed release.
Ma Zin Mar, who lives in central Myanmar and spoke under a fake name, was told by a lawyer that her sister would be among those released this week. She waited outside the prison and saw her sister walk free. Then, she watched as her sister was handcuffed and placed in a car by plainclothes officers.
“When this car drove outside of the prison compound, I ran after the car and asked them what happened. They said that they were bringing her to the police station. We followed to the police station and asked to meet my sister, but we were not allowed. We were so worried about her health,” she said.
Ma Zin Mar had spent that day cheering up her mother, telling her that her sister would soon be free. She had been so happy to see her walk out of prison. “We are so depressed now. It is now even hard to breath.”
Her mother, she added, was depressed and lying in bed.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent democracy activist, described the re-arrests as “complete mental torture of the family members and for the political prisoners.”
There have been widespread reports of torture inside Myanmar prisons, and some of those who have been released this week have described harrowing treatment at the hands of security forces.
A young democracy activist, who also spoke anonymously, said that during interrogations, which took place before he was transported to prison, detainees had no choice but to use toilet water to drink or wash their faces. He was arrested for possessing banners and posters opposing the military coup.
“They [the military] even put guns in our mouths. And they threatened us a lot. They asked us to dig graves for ourselves. Also, I have seen other people get tortured and they were even vomiting because of the severity of the torture. Some people lost their teeth,” he said, speaking anonymously for fear of arrest. Prison, he said, had felt like paradise in comparison.
He added that he cannot feel happy, even though he has been released. He lives in fear of being arrested again. He also worries for the many others left behind in prison. “Some of them got arrested for sharing a Facebook post, or they beat pots and pans [a protest act], or they got arrested as their phones were searched by the soldiers on the road. They did no crimes,” he said.
The junta appeared to be releasing prisoners who had been charged under section 505a, a sweeping law that is used by the junta to punish anyone who criticises the coup or the military. However, many face multiple charges, and so remain in prison.
The announcement of the prisoner release came just days after Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, was excluded from a regional summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) over his failure to commit to de-escalating the country’s crisis.
Shunlei Yi said that she believed the announcement had been in response to the pressure from neighbouring countries. “They see these leaders as their like minded people,” she said, referring to Asean, which has a tradition of non-interference and rarely condemns its members over human rights issues.
David Mathieson, an independent analyst formerly based in Myanmar, said that regardless of whether the release had been planned for some time or driven by the Asean decision, the snub by neighbouring countries would have stung. “They’re status-obsessed people, the leaders of the SAC [State Administrative Council junta],” he said.
However, he added that the prisoner releases, which appear far more limited than promised, were unlikely to impress anyone in the international community. “A lot of diplomats [should say]: ‘you said that you were going to release all these people – where are the lists and where is this happening? … You’re promising something like this and completely reneging on it. We can’t trust anything that you say from now on, which really limits the ability to construct mediation with you.’”