Myanmar: Free Prisoners of Conscience in Rakhine State
End Ongoing Persecution of Rohingya
(SITTWE—March 14, 2015) The government of Myanmar should immediately and unconditionally release a group of five Rohingya prisoners of conscience being held in Sittwe prison, Rakhine State, Fortify Rights said today. The group includes three prominent Rohingya community leaders imprisoned earlier this week.
Criminal charges against the individuals stem from tensions in Rakhine State in April 2013 when government officials attempted to force stateless Rohingya to identify as “Bengali,” a term implying they are natives of Bangladesh rather than Myanmar. Local residents protested, chanting “Rohingya! Rohingya!,” and violence ensued, leading the government to suspend its controversial “citizenship scrutiny” exercise. Shortly thereafter, the state filed trumped-up charges against Rohingya community leaders and others.
“The authorities are sending a clear message to Rohingya that any form of resistance will be met with reprisals,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “This is a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine the community’s social and political structures. It’s a textbook example of persecution.”
On February 27, the Sittwe Appellate Court sentenced three of the men—Ba Tha, 63; Kyaw Myint, 61; and Hla Myint, 31—to eight years in prison. On March 8, the authorities transferred the group from their homes near an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp to the Sittwe police station and later to Sittwe Prison. Two others—Solemon Begum, 50, female, and Mohamed Hashim, 22, male—have been imprisoned in Sittwe Prison since June 2013, and on February 27, the court added an additional five years to the three-and-a-half year sentence they are currently serving. The Court also sentenced a sixth Rohingya community leader, Kyaw Khin, 45, male, to five years in prison on February 27. He is currently in hiding.
The charges against the Rohingya community leaders relate to sections 147 (rioting), 333 (injuring a public servant), and 395 (armed robbery by a gang) of the Myanmar Penal Code.
Fortify Rights met with Kyaw Myint and Hla Myint in an IDP camp in Rakhine State on March 7, the day before the court remanded them to Sittwe prison. They told Fortify Rights that the authorities accused them of organizing the Muslim population in Rakhine State to self-identify as Rohingya—an allegation they deny.
“The government thinks that if we’re free, we’ll advise the people to call themselves Rohingya, so they want to lock us up,” said Hla Myint, who has been involved in humanitarian relief for displaced Rohingya. “We have people who are dying, and we are just trying to help them.”
District Court Judge Aye Thein, an ethnic Burman, heard the initial charges against the six Rohingya on June 2013 in “criminal regular trial #36/2013.” On June 24, 2014, she acquitted and freed Kyaw Myint, Hla Myint, Ba Tha, and Kyaw Khin. On the same day, Judge Aye Thein convicted and sentenced Solemon Begum and Mohamed Hashim to three-and-a-half years in prison. Rakhine State Attorney General Oo Hla Thein later appealed the acquittal, and Judge Thein Aung, an ethnic Rakhine, oversaw the trial in “criminal appellate case #69/2014.” The appellate court in Sittwe heard arguments on January 4, 2015, found them all guilty, and sentenced them on February 27.
The group intends to appeal their convictions at the Supreme Court in Naypyidaw.
Hla Myo Myint, an ethnic Burman human rights lawyer with decades of legal experience in Myanmar, represents these prisoners of conscience. He told Fortify Rights that local “extremists” previously threatened him in Sittwe for representing Rohingya clients and that plain-clothed persons on motorbikes often follow him when he is in the Rakhine State capital.
Rohingya, and particularly Rohingya community and political leaders, are subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and harassment in Myanmar. Prisoners of conscience in Myanmar remain at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and are subject to conditions in detention that fall short of international standards, as articulated by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Myanmar lacks an independent judiciary and trials throughout the country often fail to meet international standards. The right to a fair trial is a human right recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and legally binding on all states as part of customary international law.
Ahead of the elections scheduled to take place later this year, Rakhine State authorities are preparing to confiscate “white cards”—identification cards that do not provide any legal status but enabled Rohingya to vote in the 2010 elections. This follows a February 11 statement from President Thein Sein’s office declaring that white cards will expire on March 31, effectively revoking voting rights of white-card holders. Some displaced Rohingya told Fortify Rights they believe authorities deliberately timed the imprisonment of their community leaders ahead of the revocation of white cards.
Myanmar has released more than 1,000 prisoners of conscience since 2011. Working estimates of remaining prisoners of conscience in the country exclude Rohingya, indicating the depths of anti-Rohingya sentiment at all levels in Myanmar. Since 2013, Fortify Rights interviewed Rohingya from Rakhine State who said Myanmar authorities dragged family members away in recent years. Fortify Rights believes there are potentially scores of Rohingya prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, particularly in northern Rakhine State.
Fortify Rights calls on the government of Myanmar to release all remaining prisoners of conscience in the country, including Rohingya. Fortify Rights also calls on the international community to respect and protect human rights in Myanmar, including the right of Rohingya to self identify.
“Some want to believe the situation in Rakhine State has stabilized, but in reality it has been a steady downward spiral of abuse,” said Matthew Smith. “The government has pitched its ethnic re-classification efforts to the international community as a pragmatic solution. It’s important we all see it for what it is—a strategy to eradicate the Rohingya identity.”
For more information, please contact:
The government of Myanmar explicitly denies the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity. The 1982 Citizenship Law effectively stripped Rohingya of equal access to citizenship, rendering more than one million stateless in Myanmar and making the Rohingya the world’s largest stateless population within any single country’s borders, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 2012, the government has conducted “citizenship scrutiny” exercises to verify the ethnic identity of Muslims in Rakhine State, forcing residents to register as “Bengali” and refusing to register anyone as Rohingya.
In June and October 2012, civilians and state security forces in Rakhine State carried out targeted attacks against Muslim communities in 13 of 17 townships in the state. As a result of this violence and subsequent abuses, more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, remain confined in squalid ghetto-like camps, where they are denied freedom of movement and face avoidable deprivations in humanitarian aid.
In November 2014, Fortify Rights reported on how Myanmar state security forces are complicit in the human trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State. Myanmar state security forces in Rakhine State have collected payments from Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar by boats operated by transnational criminal syndicates. In some cases, the Myanmar Navy escorted boats operated by criminal gangs out to international waters.
In February 2014, Fortify Rights reported on internal government “population control” policies targeting Rohingya Muslims and giving rise to abuses that amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The 79-page report, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, is based on the analysis of 12 leaked official documents and a review of public records as well as interviews with Rohingya. The documents published in the report reveal restrictions that deny Rohingya basic human rights, including the rights to nondiscrimination, freedom of movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy. All the restrictions and enforcement methods described in the report remain in effect in Rakhine State until today.