BANGKOK // The United Nations has declared the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader, as illegal. The UN rights body, whose focus is arbitrary detentions, ruled that her continued house arrest violates both international legislation and Myanmar's own laws and called on the junta to immediately release opposition leaders.
The UN decision will probably fuel further international calls for the Nobel Peace laureate to be freed. Only last week the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, urged the military rulers to release all political prisoners, especially Ms Suu Kyi. The rights investigator visited Myanmar last month but was denied access to the opposition leader. "One of my recommendations to the authorities was the release of prisoners of conscience," Mr Quintana said in an interview. "I was very clear that it should start right now."
Ms Suu Kyi has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest. She has been arrested on three different occasions during that time. The last time was in May 2003, after pro-government thugs attacked the car in which she was travelling in the north of the country. Many members of her political party, the National League Democracy, and other activists have been jailed. Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 2,100 political prisoners languishing in the jails of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
It is rare for a UN body to accuse a member state of violating its own laws. The panel said under Myanmar law, only people who pose a security risk can be detained without charge. It also called for Ms Suu Kyi's immediate and unconditional release. The UN ruling was made in November, but was only made public this week. Ms Suu Kyi's detention is formally renewed every six or 12 months. Each time the police issue a new order, there is a massive international outcry, which falls on deaf ears in the country's capital, Naypitdaw. Every time Ms Suu Kyi's detention is extended, the authorities read out the order, "but give no explanation or reason for the extension of the detention order", Nyan Win, the NLD spokesman, said.
The working group, an arm of the UN Human Rights Council, said Ms Suu Kyi was being held under Myanmar's 1975 state protection law, which only allows renewable arrest orders for a maximum of five years. This five-year period ended at the end of May, the UN experts said. The UN body also questioned whether Ms Suu Kyi was in fact a threat to the "security of the state or public peace and tranquillity", the provision of the 1975 law the authorities say is the reason for her continued detention. In their judgment the UN experts quoted Gen Khin Yi, the country's police chief, who said in 2006 Myanmar would be calm if she walked free.
The latest UN decision is the fifth time since 1992 that Ms Suu Kyi's detention has been declared arbitrary and illegal under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but marks the first time her detention was declared illegal under Myanmar's own laws. Although the UN decision is welcomed, Jared Genser, a Washington-based lawyer for Ms Suu Kyi, said the junta was unlikely to bow to the UN advice on its own laws. So far the government has not responded to the UN's legal arguments.
"I'm under no illusion that Aung San Suu Kyi will be immediately released because of this judgment. But at the same time I do think it is an important small step forward," he said. "There is no quick and easy answer to the problem of Burma, so we have to take one step at a time. "I do think that it will have an important impact on the United Nations' ability to press particularly China, Russia and others who have been more protective of the junta."
The UN panel should be seen as independent because the five experts came from Chile, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal and Spain, Zin Linn, an opposition spokesman for the Burmese government in exile, said in an interview. "It should now be clear to everyone that the generals have no grounds upon which to keep her locked up and they should free her immediately." Nearly two weeks ago, Kyi Win, Ms Suu Kyi's lawyer, sent a letter to Gen Thein Sein, the prime minister of Myanmar, asking for a hearing to appeal for her release when the one-year detention order expires in May. The lawyer originally sent an appeal letter last October, but has had no response from the authorities, the opposition spokesman said.
"The reason for her detention is false because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who advocates a non-violence policy, has not caused any threat to public order," the lawyer said in his letter to the authorities. Diplomats in Yangon, the country's largest city and its former capital, are convinced that the pro-democracy leader is unlikely to be released from house arrest before elections scheduled for the first half of next year. These would be the first elections in 20 years. The NLD convincingly won those elections but was never allowed to form a civilian government.
Some legal experts in Myanmar believe that the junta may surprise everyone and free Ms Suu Kyi this year. The first time she was placed under house arrest, she was freed a few days before her sixth anniversary in detention in 1995. There is also some dispute as to when she was officially detained under the current anti-subversion laws. Initially the opposition leader was held in the Insein prison in Yangon. She was only allowed home in Sept 2003, after having a major operation in hospital. Some Asian diplomats have suggested that Ms Suu Kyi may again be released, six years after she was originally placed under house arrest. "It is difficult to make any predictions as the government has no transparent policy," Nyan Win, the NLD spokesman, said.
One thing that may tip the balance, some diplomats and analysts say, is the proposed visit by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to Myanmar, possibly next month after he attends the regional forum in Thailand of the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. firstname.lastname@example.org