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Activists on trial

By Bill O’Toole
August 25, 2014

On August 18, the lawyer and Rohingya-rights advocate U Kyaw Hla Aung appeared in the Sittwe regional court to face a variety of criminal charges, including “incitement” and “dacoitry”, only to have his case delayed yet again after the prosecution failed to produce its promised witnesses.

Ko Htin Kyaw (second from left) attends a press conference in Yangon on March 23 2013. (Noe Noe Aung/The Myanmar Times)

A day later, the co-founder of the Movement for Democracy Current Force, Ko Htin Kyaw was sentenced to one year of hard labour in Dagon Seikkan township court for his role in distributing political pamphlets. Dagon Seikkan is one of nine townships where Ko Htin Kyaw is scheduled to be tried for his crimes. His combined sentences already total eight years in prison.

While the two court dates were hundreds of miles apart, the UK-based watchdog group Frontline Defenders warned that the cases highlights the ongoing use of the courts and legal system to target activists and human rights defenders, a favorite strategy of the military regime that appears to have remained prevalent under President U Thein Sein’s administration period.

“It shows that the leopard has not yet changed his spots,” said Jim Loughran, a spokesperson for Frontline Defenders. “It is all very well for President Thein Sein to talk about reform or human rights but there is a huge gap between that rhetoric and the actual functioning of state agencies which are still largely controlled by the military.

“Recognition for the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, like U Kyaw Hla Aung, is a key indicator of how far Burma has come along that road … [and] the case against Ko Htin Kyaw is another example of how the legal system is used against human rights defenders.”

The charges against U Kyaw Hla Aung stem from an incident on April 26, 2013, when a group of young Muslims in the Boduba IDP camp refused to fill out an immigration department form that identified them as “Bengali”. The situation escalated to the point where the youths allegedly attacked several immigration police.

Shortly afterward U Kyaw Hla Aung was arrested and accused of inciting the group to attack the police. Many observers say the charges are directly related to U Kyaw Hla Aung’s longstanding political activism and legal assistance on behalf of imprisoned Muslims in Rakhine State.

He has been detained since July last year. His Yangon-based lawyer, U Hla Myo Myint, said the prosecution has yet to produce any witnesses or evidence of their claim. Instead, they have used court petitions and other legal maneuvering to draw out the process as long as possible.

Ko Htin Kyaw began his activism during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Since that time he has been arrested on numerous occasions, most often for non-violent violations of the Unlawful Assembly Act.

His specific charges related to his role handing out pamphlets in Yangon claiming that U Thein Sein had resigned and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.

His prominent lawyer, Robert Sann Aung, said the whole stunt was meant as a harmless if unorthodox political protest, nothing that merits one year of hard labour. “The sentence is completely disproportionate” he said.

Both men have been singled out by numerous international rights groups, including Amnesty International and the UN, as human rights defenders who have been systematically targeted for their political activities and beliefs.

Representatives from the Yangon and Rakhine regional governments could not be reached for comment last week. As previously reported by The Myanmar Times, U Aung Thein, the deputy minister of the President’s Office, has stated publicly that the President’s office no longer believes there are any political prisoners left in the nation’s jails.

Mr Loughran said that the international community had a key role to play in making sure the issue doesn’t fall by the wayside.

“The standard against which the commitment of the international community to human rights will be measured is the extent to which they are willing to act to protect human rights defenders like Ko Htin Kyaw and U Kyaw Hla Aung,” he said.

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