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Protesters' bodies may have been burned: UN

by Laura Macinnis, Reuters, December 8, 2007

'Very disturbing' crematorium accounts: envoy

Rangoon, Burma -- Burma's military rulers may have cremated bodies, including those of monks, to hide the numbers killed in their crackdown on protesters, a UN expert said yesterday.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN envoy on the situation of human rights in Burma, was barred from the Ye Way crematorium in Rangoon during his five-day trip last month.

In a report on that visit to assess the human rights fallout from the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in September, he cited "very disturbing" accounts that many bodies wrapped in plastic and rice bags were burned at the Ye Way site during the nights of Sept. 27-30.

"At least one report indicates that some of the deceased being cremated had shaved heads and some had signs of serious injuries," he said.

The Buddhist monks, who led the uprising that captured worldwide attention, traditionally have shaved heads.

In his report to the UN Human Rights Council, which meets next week in Geneva, Mr. Pinheiro said it was unusual for the crematorium to operate at night, and state security officials told regular staff to keep away.

Witnesses also reported seeing security forces remove dead bodies during the protests and after night raids on monasteries.

"Without expressing at this stage an opinion on the accuracy of these reports, careful attention should be given to this allegation as it may explain why the government has not been able, so far, to provide information on the whereabouts of a number of detainees and missing persons," Mr. Pinheiro said in his 77-page report.

Although the government has said 15 people died in the protests, that figure "may greatly underestimate the reality." He has asked information about 16 more people who died in the crackdown by army and riot police.

"This included the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke grenades, bamboo and wooden sticks, rubber batons and catapults," the report said.

Although state forces "showed some diligence in preventing a massacre, [their decision] to shoot and kill and to severely beat protesters causing death constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of life and violates the right to life."

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people were arrested over the demonstrations. Mr. Pinheiro estimated 500 to 1,000 were still detained as of last month, in addition to 1,150 political prisoners held before the demonstrations.

Some had shaved heads and some had signs of serious injuries

He described large-capacity informal detention centres and said he had credible reports of a special punishment area, known as "military dog cells" in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison.

This consists of a compound of nine tiny isolation cells constantly guarded by a troop of 30 dogs. Its inmates were held in "degrading conditions," the report said.

Cells lacked ventilation or toilets. Detainees, mostly political prisoners, slept on thin mats on the concrete floor and were only allowed to bathe with cold water once every three days for five minutes.

One detainee described being forced to kneel barelegged on broken bricks and to stand on tiptoes for long periods. Monks were disrobed and intentionally fed in the afternoon when they are religiously forbidden to eat.

Mr. Pinheiro said Burma's rulers had failed to take serious steps to respect human rights.

"The use of lethal force by law enforcement officials ... was inconsistent with the fundamental principles [of ] international customary law," he said.

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