Free wrongfully imprisoned protesters, hold police and officials accountable for Letpadan crackdown

(YANGON – October 14, 2015) The Government of Myanmar should immediately drop all charges against human rights lawyer Khin Khin Kyaw, Fortify Rights and Justice Trust said today. Khin Khin Kyaw faces up to six months in prison, fines, and revocation of her legal license for allegedly disrupting a courtroom after she filed a legal motion seeking to hold high-ranking police officials responsible for the violent crackdown against protesters in Letpadan in Myanmar’s Bago Region on March 10, 2015.

Today marks the first day in the trial against Khin Khin Kyaw.

Khin Khin Kyaw is part of a legal team representing 58 protesters who are facing charges related to unlawful assembly, rioting, harming public servants, and public mischief for their involvement in protests in Letpadan to oppose Myanmar’s National Education Law. Police officers arrested more than 120 protesters, journalists, and bystanders on March 10, beating dozens of people during the crackdown and after bringing them into custody. Fifty-four of the individuals arrested on March 10 and in the days and weeks that followed remain imprisoned in Thayawaddy Prison.

“The case against Khin Khin Kyaw is politically motivated and should be immediately dropped,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “The authorities are punishing a lawyer for doing her job while police and high-ranking officials responsible for a brutal crackdown walk free.” 

On August 25, 2015, Khin Khin Kyaw submitted a legal motion to Thayawaddy Township Judge Chit Myat, who is presiding over the trial of those arrested for their involvement in the protests. Khin Khin Kyaw’s legal motion argues that Myanmar Police Force Regiments 1, 10, and 11 should face criminal charges for using excessive force against protesters in Letpadan, and it names Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant-General Ko Ko and Deputy Police Chief Nandar Win as responsible for the crackdown.

On September 1, Khin Khin Kyaw submitted a minor amendment to the motion to correct the title for Deputy Police Chief Nandar Win. Judge Chit Myat refused to accept the amendment, leading individuals in the courtroom to shout that he was biased and prompting him to exit the courtroom. On September 8, Judge Chit Myat dismissed Khin Khin Kyaw’s legal motion against the Lt.-General Ko Ko and Deputy Police Chief Nandar Win for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that Myanmar’s judiciary cannot review actions of the police without written authorization from President Thein Sein.

On September 15, Judge Chit Myat charged Khin Khin Kyaw with disrupting the court under section 228 of the Penal Code, which carries penalties of six months in jail, loss of legal license, and a fine. On September 21, the same judge sued Than Htaike, a supporter of the protesters, under the same provision.

“Judge Chit Myat has shown bias and lack of judicial independence throughout the seven-month trial, scolding the defense lawyers and individuals on trial, and unduly delaying the proceedings by walking out of the courtroom multiple times,” said Roger Normand, executive director of Justice Trust, an organization supporting legal reform in Myanmar. “This is a clear-cut case of retaliation, using the law as a club to beat down dissent rather than as a tool for justice.”

A new report by Fortify Rights and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Crackdown at Letpadan, analyzing the events on March 10 found that Myanmar police officers used excessive force against protesters at Letpadan.The report draws on dozens of eyewitness accounts, more than 500 photographs, and 40 videos, finding that police brutally punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs. Police also beat protesters in police custody while their hands were bound behind their backs. Prior to the crackdown, Myanmar authorities violated the protesters’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression by ordering the protesters to disband, issuing unjustified restrictions, and erecting a barricade to prevent protesters from continuing to march to Yangon.

Fortify Rights and Justice Trust believe the charges against Khin Khin Kyaw are politically motivated, designed to further protract the trial of the Letpadan protesters, most of whom remain unlawfully detained. The lack of judicial independence and undue delays in the case violate international fair trial standards,the organizations said.

Fortify Rights and Justice Trust called on the Government of Myanmar to immediately and unconditionally free all wrongfully detained individuals. Under international law, arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are engaging in a protected activity, such as exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Article 354 of Myanmar’s Constitution also protects the rights of citizens “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions.”

The right to remedy under international law provides specific rights to a person whose rights or freedoms have been violated. Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights outlines the main provisions of the right to remedy, which includes “an effective remedy” determined by a competent authority and a guarantee of enforcement. These rights extend to individuals harmed by police officers unlawfully exercising the use of force, as well as individuals wrongly arrested, detained, and prosecuted by the Government.

“The Myanmar government should give space to its citizens to express their views freely, without the threat of violence or persecution,” said Matthew Smith. 

“The authorities are now working to silence students and lawyers committed to a brighter future for the country,” said Roger Normand. “This is one of the most important cases in Myanmar and its outcome will be telling.” 

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