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Red Cross says Myanmar junta stops prison visits

Written by: Staff
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BANGKOK, Feb 27 (Reuters) Myanmar's military junta has suspended visits by the Red Cross to 90 prisons and labour camps across the country, the humanitarian agency said today.

''Basically, the situation is not very good,'' said Fiona Terry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yangon. ''The government has not authorised us to visit since the end of last year.'' The military government in charge of the former Burma had not given any specific reasons for the termination of the ICRC prison visits, which had been going on since 1999, she said.

During that time, the ICRC had made 453 visits to prisoners, as well as two to opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after she was detained following clashes between her supporters and government backers in 2003, she said.

Human rights groups say Myanmar, which has been under military rule since a 1962 coup, has around 1,100 political prisoners. The ICRC does not release such information, citing the need for confidentiality.

Terry said the ICRC's ability to operate had become more difficult since the purge of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004, with the junta imposing unworkable conditions on the agency, which visits prisoners in 80 countries and assesses their detention conditions.

One of the most contentious conditions, Terry said, was making the ICRC take local government-affiliated agencies such as the Myanmar Red Cross or Myanmar Women's Federation on visits to political prisoners or ''security detainees'', as it calls them.

''We were willing to cooperate for a certain amount of things. We were willing to share our knowledge. We were very happy if some Myanmar groups got involved in the welfare of detainees,'' Terry said.

''But obviously we are not able to visit with them. We have to have an independent view of what's going on and to talk with the detainees without any witnesses,'' she said.

Since Khin Nyunt's removal, travel and other curbs have been placed on many aid groups, including the UN World Food Programme and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which pulled out of Myanmar in August 2005.

The ICRC was trying to negotiate a solution, Terry said, although the process was being hampered in part by the military government's move to a new administrative centre at Pyinmana, 200 miles (320 km) north of the old colonial-era capital, Yangon.

''We are optimistic that things are going to be resolved but I can't put a timeline on that,'' she said.

''We weren't just visiting detainees. We were also delivering quite a lot of essential drugs and soap, so there are obviously some grave humanitarian concerns the longer this goes on.'' Last week, the United Nations human rights envoy to Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, cited the cessation of ICRC prison visits as evidence of the worsening state of human rights in the southeast Asian nation.

REUTERS CH SP1137

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