Protect interfaith activists, repeal Unlawful Associations Act

(Mandalay, April 7, 2016)—Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release human rights defenders Mr. Zaw Zaw Latt, Ms. Pwint Phyu Latt, and Mr. Zaw Win Bo, and drop all remaining charges against them, Fortify Rights said today. A verdict in a case against Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt is expected April 8, 2016 in Mandalay Region.

On February 26, the Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court sentenced the three interfaith peace activists to two years in prison with hard labor for alleged violations under Article 13(1) of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act. If convicted tomorrow in the same court, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt face an additional three years in prison for alleged violations under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.

“Myanmar authorities have a long and thorny history of targeting human rights defenders, and the practice continues,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The charges against these activists are unwarranted and should be immediately and unconditionally dropped.”

In July 2015, the Myanmar Police Force arrested and charged Muslim activists Zaw Zaw Latt, 28, and Pwint Phyu Latt, 34, under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for participating in a well-publicized interfaith peace delegation visit in June 2013 to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Laiza. Laiza is a predominantly Christian town in Kachin State where the KIA’s administrative headquarters are located. The delegation delivered a Christian cross and a statue of the Buddha to Laiza in a call for peace and interfaith harmony. Dozens of other citizens participated in the delegation.

The arrest of Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt in July 2015 followed a public campaign waged by the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion—commonly known by its Burmese language acronym Ma Ba Tha—calling for the arrest of Zaw Zaw Latt. On June 9, 2015, Ahtu Mashi, a journal of Ma Ba Tha’s Mandalay branch, published a five-page article calling for Zaw Zaw Latt to be prosecuted for “insulting religion,” and for Myanmar authorities to “take legal action against him and punish him.” His arrest on July 14, 2015 was followed by the arrest of Pwint Phyu Latt five days later.

In February 2016, the Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court found Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo—a 22-year-old Hindu man from Mandalay—to be in violation of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act for photographs taken on the Myanmar-India border during a humanitarian relief mission in Chin State in April 2014. The mission took place on behalf of Thint Myat Lo Thu Myar (Peace Seekers and Multiculturalist Movement), an interfaith group based in Mandalay Region. Zaw Win Bo did not participate in the trip to Kachin state and is not facing charges under Article 17/1.

Speaking after the verdict on February 26, Zaw Zaw Latt told The Irrawaddy, “We visited the border town legally and took those pictures with the approval of both of the immigration officers. We are not guilty of [violating the Immigration Act], and our sentence shows there’s no rule of law.” The circumstances surrounding the charges against Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt under Articles 17/1 and 13/1 call into question the legality and legitimacy of the arrests and prosecutions as well as the due process protections afforded to the defendants.

“We’re continuing to see this toxic mix of religious discrimination and arbitrary detention in Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith. “The judicial system continues to punish human rights defenders whose protection should be prioritized.”

The right to freedom of association is a fundamental right protected by international law. Any restriction on this right must be provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. For decades, authorities in Myanmar have applied sweeping provisions in the Unlawful Associations Act to deem peaceful associations unlawful and justify the arrest and imprisonment of human rights defenders from a variety of backgrounds. The vague and overly broad provisions of the Unlawful Associations Act as well as its selective enforcement against minority groups and human rights defenders constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of association.

The government of Myanmar should immediately repeal the Unlawful Associations Act, Fortify Rights said. Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo are being arbitrarily detained. Under international law, an arrest is considered arbitrary if a person is arrested for engaging in activity that is protected under international law, such as exercising the rights to freedom of association, expression, opinion, and peaceful assembly. International law requires that “arbitrariness” be interpreted broadly to include elements such as “inappropriateness, injustice, lack of predictability and due process of law, as well as elements of reasonableness, necessity and proportionality.”

The right to non-discrimination is also protected under international law and Myanmar’s domestic law. Article 347 of the Myanmar Constitution protects citizens from discrimination based on race and religion, stating, “the Union shall guarantee any person to enjoy equal rights before the law and shall equally provide legal protection.” Furthermore, Article 348, states, “the Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on…religion.”

“The work of interfaith activists like Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt is central to establishing a peaceful and pluralist Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith. “There are high expectations of the new government to release all political prisoners, and every day that passes until their release is one too many.”

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