Immediately release remaining political prisoners, repeal unjust laws

(YANGON, May 24, 2017) – Fortify Rights today welcomes the release of interfaith peace activists Mr. Zaw Zaw Latt and Ms. Pwint Phyu Latt from Mandalay prison, where they languished for nearly two years. Fortify Rights and other human rights organizations repeatedly called for their immediate and unconditional release.

Myanmar President Htin Kyaw issued today an amnesty for 259 prisoners, including Zaw Zaw Latt, 30, and Pwint Phyu Latt, 36, to mark the beginning of the Union Peace Conference, otherwise known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference. The executive order freed 186 Myanmar nationals and 73 foreigners from prisons around Myanmar.

“I’m glad that I was set free before the set date, and my special thanks go to the organizations that came together and helped me to become free again,” Zaw Zaw Latt told Fortify Rights. “However, I feel sad for those who are left behind in captivity.”

Speaking with Fortify Rights by phone, Zaw Zaw Latt called for “unjust laws” to be repealed and described Myanmar’s remaining political prisoners and the laws used to imprison them as untreated wounds on the country. “The wound will only heal if the thorn is taken out, rather than applying ointment to the wound on the surface,” he said.

On February 26, 2016, the Chan Aye Thar Zan Township Court in Mandalay Region sentenced Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt to two years in prison with hard labor for alleged violations under Article 13(1) of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act. The same court sentenced the two to an additional two years in prison for alleged violations under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.

The convictions under the Unlawful Associations Act related to the participation of the two Muslim human rights defenders in a well-publicized interfaith peace delegation visit in June 2013 to the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Laiza, 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, none of whom were brought up on charges.

The Myanmar authorities also found Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt to be in violation of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act for photographs taken on the Myanmar-India border during a humanitarian relief mission to 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.

The extremist-Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, waged a public campaign against Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, which resulted in their arrest and detention. 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.

Earlier this week, Myanmar’s highest Buddhist authority, The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, also known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ha Na, effectively banned Ma Ba Tha, determining it to be an illegitimate organization. The Ma Ha Na prohibited the use of Ma Ba Tha’s banner by individuals or groups for any purpose, effective July 15.

The Myanmar government should immediately and unconditionally release remaining individuals arbitrarily detained, Fortify Rights said today. These include ethnic Rakhine human rights defender Khaing Myo Htun, 34, ethnic Kachin religious leadersLangjaw Gam Seng, 35, and Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, hundreds of Rohingya Muslims arbitrarily detained in Rakhine State since November, and others.

“We commend the Myanmar Government for releasing Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt today,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “They should have never been imprisoned in the first place and now is the time to ensure all political prisoners are freed.”

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