UN condemns Myanmar's jailing of writer for urging religious tolerance

GENEVA (AFP) - The United Nations on Wednesday condemned Myanmar's jailing of a writer for urging religious tolerance, calling on authorities to release him and instead prosecute extremists inciting violence against minorities.

Htin Lin Oo, a columnist and former information officer for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was arrested in December over a speech in which he urged Myanmar's hardline Buddhists to show tolerance to minorities in the country.

On Tuesday, he was jailed for two years with hard labour for "insulting religion", and the UN rights office said it was "appalled" at the verdict.

The writer "courageously spoke out against the use of Buddhism as a tool for extremism", it said in a statement.

"His treatment and conviction are in stark contrast to the treatment of those in Myanmar who are clearly inciting violence against minority communities, particularly the Rohingya," it added.

The plight of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims has drawn international attention following the boat people crisis that erupted last month, in which thousands of impoverished Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants struggled desperately to reach Southeast Asian countries.

Rohingya complain of systematic discrimination and mistreatment by Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government, which refuses to even recognise them as citizens.

Many have been killed in sectarian clashes with Buddhists in recent years, and hardline Buddhist monks have promoted legislation seen as targeting them.

Htin Lin Oo's lawyer Thein Than told AFP Tuesday's sentence was punishing his client for "criticising those monks who use the excuse of nation, race and religion to incite hate speech".

The UN rights office lamented that "rather than prosecuting individuals, who brazenly call for the Rohingya to be killed, for hate speech and incitement to violence, the authorities have jailed a peaceful advocate who dared to question the misuse and manipulation of religion for extremist ends." UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has previously raised Htin Lin Oo's case with the authorities in Myanmar.

His office said he had warned "the country against creating a new generation of political prisoners by jailing people who seek to enjoy the democratic freedoms they were promised in the reforms the country has undergone in the past two years."

The UN agency urged Myanmar to release the writer "unconditionally" and "to take all necessary measures to ensure that those who conduct peaceful advocacy, legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, do not face reprisals." It also called on the government to send a "clear message against hate speech and incitement to violence."

While hailing the reforms that had been implemented the end of outright army rule in 2011, and the increased freedom of expression in the country, it stressed that "international standards require that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should be prohibited by law."

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