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Irwin Cotler

Suu Kyi's unhappy birthday Add to ...

In an important - though largely unacknowledged decision - the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared unequivocally that the ongoing detention of Myanmarese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is "in violation of international law," and it has urged her immediate and unconditional release.

In particular, the group condemned the Myanmarese junta's "illegal" imprisonment of Ms. Suu Kyi - an honorary citizen of Canada - on the grounds that she "was not informed of the reasons for her arrest; had no effective remedy to challenge her detention; no records were given to her; she was never informed of her rights; she has been denied communication with the [o]tside world; and is being detained because of her political views."

The UN decision also noted that a lawyer for Ms. Suu Kyi lost his licence simply for daring to represent her, that her trial was conducted in private and that the media were denied the right to speak to defence witnesses, some of whom were banned from testifying while all of the prosecution witnesses, nearly five times as many, were heard.

The UN working group said it "deems it necessary to recall that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right not to be arbitrarily detained, as well as the rights to due process and a fair trial, and to freedom of opinion, expression and assembly. None of these have been complied with."

It also held that Ms. Suu Kyi had not been judged by an independent and impartial tribunal, as enshrined in Article 10 of the rights declaration, reflecting the view of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar (formerly called Burma) that "the judiciary is not independent, and is under the direct control of the government and the military."

It should be noted that this was the sixth time the working group had found the terms of her house arrest in violation of international law. In effect, every one of her periods of confinement has been ruled illegal.

It is important to recall - and this also goes largely unaddressed - that Ms. Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, and its allies won the 1990 elections in Myanmar with more than 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats. Yet since that election, in a foundational assault on democracy and international law, she has spent more than 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

She had been charged under the Law to Safeguard the State against the Danger of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts, which, interestingly enough, had been annulled by the military government when it took power in 1988.

The most recent extension of her house arrest is due to American citizen John Yettaw's illegal and unannounced entry on the property where she was being confined in May, 2009. Yet it was Ms. Suu Kyi who was charged with "aiding and abetting" Mr. Yettaw's illegal entry - an utter inversion of the facts and the law.

After the illegal intrusion, Ms. Suu Kyi was sentenced for violating the terms of her previous house arrest, which the UN working group had repeatedly found to be without any legal basis whatsoever. In the words of the group, "No charges can flow from the charges of the terms of this previous arrest order ... [itself illegal] Further, even if this were not the case, no controlling body - acting in good faith - could find that her actions violated the terms of her house arrest."

Myanmar's Foreign Ministry stated it "is a country that always respects UN declarations and decisions as it is a UN member country." If this is the case, Ms. Suu Kyi should be immediately released.

It is tragic to note that Aung San Suu Kyi turned 65 years old on Saturday. She spent yet another birthday unjustly confined while the military junta continues to violate international law and ignore the decisions of the UN working group with utter impunity.

Irwin Cotler is member of Parliament for Mount Royal and former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. He is a member of the board of advisers of Freedom Now, a non-governmental organization that represents Aung San Suu Kyi.

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