June 6, 2008 / 3:27 PM / 11 years ago

UN rights envoy pushes Myanmar on aid, prisoners

(recasts after debate)

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, June 6 (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights expert for Myanmar urged the ruling junta on Friday to investigate reports that its soldiers shot dead a number of prison inmates during last month’s cyclone, but Yangon’s envoy denied the allegations.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, in his first report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, also called for aid supplies to be allowed to flow freely to all victims of the devastating storm.

He voiced special concern at the arrest on Wednesday night of Zarganar, a top activist comedian involved in a private aid effort for cyclone survivors. "I expect clarification on this case from the authorities," he said in a speech.

The Argentine lawyer said that some 1,000 inmates of Insein prison had been forced inside a hall after its zinc roofs were torn off in cyclone Nargis on May 2, and many had panicked.

"In order to control the situation, it is reported that soldiers and riot police were called in and opened fire on the prisoners in that area. A number of prisoners were allegedly killed during the operation," his 16-page report said.

A Thailand-based rights group said at the time soldiers and police had killed 36 prisoners to quell a riot at the notorious facility. Ojea Quintana did not cite any total for the deaths.

"The authorities should conduct a thorough and transparent investigation to clarify the facts and identify the perpetrators of those arbitrary killings," the U.N. envoy said.

But Wunna Maung Win, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, dismissed allegations of a prison shooting at Insein.

"No one was killed or injured during the event. The prison security as well as the police and military had not in any circumstance used arms against the prisoners," he said.


Ojea Quintana urged the Myanmar authorities to honour an agreement with the U.N. to "allow international humanitarian workers and supplies unhindered access to the country and particularly to the areas affected" by Nargis.

His plea was echoed by Western countries during the debate in the 47-member state forum.

Slovenia’s ambassador Andrej Logar, speaking for the European Union (EU), said the human rights situation remained "dire" in Myanmar. Unlike China or Bangladesh the regime had failed to ensure timely access to aid for victims of disasters.

Myanmar’s Maung Win retorted that helping cyclone victims was his government’s "top priority".

On Friday, the Myanmar military accused "unscrupulous" citizens and foreign media of giving a false picture of the effects of the cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million people in desperate need of help.

Ojea Quintana, who succeeded Brazilian lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro as Myanmar investigator on May 1, said people reported detained for protesting over the constitutional referendum last month, were among 1,900 political prisoners in the former Burma.

These included monks rounded up after protests last September. All should be freed, he said, starting with Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader and Nobel laureate under house arrest or in prison for nearly 13 of the last 18 years.

Maung Win said the recent extension of her detention for one year had been lawful. "There is no political prisoner in Myanmar. Anyone who violates the laws of Myanmar will have to face the charges and legal action," he told the Council. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robert Evans)

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