Hold perpetrators accountable, amend peaceful assembly law
(Yangon, April 14, 2016)—While welcoming the Government of Myanmar’s recent release of political prisoners, Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic urged authorities today to open a formal investigation into the violent police crackdown against protesters in March 2015 in Letpadan.
The Letpadan protesters were among nearly 200 political prisoners that the recently elected Government of Myanmar—led by the National League for Democracy (NLD)—either pardoned or dropped charges against on April 8. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced on her second day in office a plan to free political prisoners, activists, and students in the weeks surrounding the Buddhist New Year holiday. According to human rights groups, more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“After spending more than a year in prison for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, the Letpadan protesters are finally free,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Their courage and tenacity is an example to human rights defenders across the world. We commend the government for prioritizing their release and urge the authorities to take swift action to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School published an 81-page report documenting how Myanmar police officers punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs at Letpadan on March 10, 2015. Hundreds of photographs and dozens of videos from journalists and other witnesses show police officers beating unarmed protesters. Still, more than a year later, the authorities have failed to hold anyone responsible for the use of excessive force.
In January 2016, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the Letpadan Justice Committee, and Justice Trust released a briefing paper detailing how Myanmar authorities repeatedly delayed the trials of students arrested at Letpadan and denied them access to adequate medical treatment while in prison.
In addition to investigating the abuses, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School called for the government to hold police officers responsible for using excessive force against protesters. The government should investigate commanders and officials who gave orders to use excessive force or failed to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct.
“Releasing these protesters and dropping the charges against them is a positive and historic step,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic at Harvard Law School. “We look forward to the government upholding its promise to follow the rule of law by investigating and holding perpetrators to account.”
The October 2015 report makes clear that not all police officers at the scene in March 2015 participated in violence. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attack by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers. Fortify Rights and the Clinic urged the authorities to highlight commendable police action in any investigation.
The protests in Letpadan stemmed from the September 2014 passage of the National Education Law, which critics said failed to protect the right to form unions and failed to accommodate ethnic communities, among other alleged shortcomings. Protesters in Myanmar took to the streets in January 2015 and continued to march in various locations throughout the country over the next several months.
Many of the Letpadan protesters faced charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior authorization or consent for assemblies and provides penalties of fines and imprisonment for failure to comply, infringing on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School encourage the NLD Government to repeal or amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to bring it in line with international standards and to prevent it from being used to target human rights defenders.