GENEVA (AP) — Myanmar should investigate reports that inmates were shot to death in a Yangon prison as Cyclone Nargis ravaged the country last month, a U.N. human rights expert said Friday.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s new investigator for Myanmar, said security forces apparently opened fire after prisoners at Insein prison panicked when zinc roofs were blown off during the May 2-3 cyclone.
“The authorities should conduct a thorough and transparent investigation to clarify the facts and identify the perpetrators of these arbitrary killings,” he said in a 16-page report to the rights council.
Tate Naing of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) put the death toll at 40, based on several reports the group received about the shooting.
The Thailand-based organization for Myanmar exiles said more than 1,500 prisoners were forced to congregate inside a prison hall and were locked inside until the morning of May 3.
Angry prisoners set fire to the hall and a riot ensued. Guards attempting to contain the situation opened fire and soldiers and riot police were called in, the group said.
However, Myanmar’s government rejected the claim that inmates had been shot in the incident.
“No one was killed or injured during the event,” said Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva. “The prison security, as well as the police and the military, had not in any circumstances used arms against the prisoners.”
Questioning Quintana’s impartiality, Lwin added that “human rights issues must be addressed with respect for national sovereignty.”
Quintana, who took up his post May 1, has yet to visit the country himself.
In his report, he touched on aid delays related to the cyclone, but stopped short of blaming the junta for causing additional suffering to the 2.4 million people affected by the storm. Many could not be reached by international relief agencies because of government-imposed restrictions.
Beyond the cyclone, Quintana said he was greatly concerned the country’s rulers had made no improvement on important issues such as the treatment of political prisoners, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
“The situation of human rights in Myanmar … has not changed for the better,” said Quintana, a rights expert from Argentina.
“The reported number of political prisoners and detention conditions continue to be appalling,” Quintana said, adding he had been informed that some 1,900 people are imprisoned on political grounds.
He called on the government to release the country’s most prominent political prisoner, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
The Southeast Asian country faced international condemnation last September after security forces violently suppressed pro-democracy protests, killing dozens.
Last month’s referendum on a new constitution meanwhile lacked transparency because international observers were blocked from attending, he said. The vote was held May 10, about a week after the May 2-3 cyclone.
Critics say the constitution is designed to perpetuate the military’s decades-old grip on power and have questioned the fairness of the referendum.
The government reported that 98.12 percent of the 27.3 million eligible voters cast ballots and that 92.48 percent of them approved the charter.
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