Trial of ethnic-Rakhine activist resumes today
(YANGON, July 17, 2017)—Myanmar authorities should drop all charges against arbitrarily detained human rights defender Khaing Myo Htun and release him immediately and unconditionally, said Fortify Rights today. Sittwe Township Court is expected to hear the testimony of Khaing Myo Htun today.
The charges against Khaing Myo Htun relate to allegations attributed to him that Myanmar Army soldiers used forced labor and committed other human rights violations against civilians in Rakhine State in 2016. If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison.
“Imprisoning human rights defenders for doing their legitimate and important work is an affront to all human rights,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The government has an obligation to protect Khaing Myo Htun and all who shine a light on human rights violations.”
Khaing Myo Htun has spent nearly 12 months in detention and faces two consecutive two-year sentences of imprisonment, a fine, or both if convicted on all charges.
On July 25, 2016, Sittwe police arrested Khaing Myo Htun in Baukthisu Ward, Sittwe Township after Lieutenant-Colonel Tin Naing Tun from the Myanmar Army’s Sittwe-based Regional Operations Command filed charges of sedition and incitement against him. The charges related to an April 24, 2016 public statement by the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)—the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army—claiming that the Myanmar Army used forced labor and committed other violations against civilians in Rakhine State. At the time, Khaing Myo Htun was the deputy information officer of the ALP.
Khaing Myo Htun is expected to testify in court today—his first opportunity to do so since being detained almost a year ago.
The repeated absence of the plaintiff and other prosecution witnesses in this trial have unnecessarily delayed the progress of the trial, said Fortify Rights. Former presiding Judge Kyaw Zan Thar also prematurely walked out of hearings without explanation, further delaying the progress of the trial.
The Sittwe Township and District courts denied Khaing Myo Htun’s request for bail in August 2016 and February 2017, respectively, and the Rakhine State High Court subsequently upheld the decision to deny bail.
“These avoidable delays and denied bail applications appear to be an effort to punish Khaing Myo Htun for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Matthew Smith. “This is an attempt to chill others from exercising their rights to speak out against abuses.”
Khaing Myo Htun’s protracted detention and lengthy trial contravene international fair trial standards and the right to liberty. For example, Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires that anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge be brought promptly before a court or judicial officer and be tried within a reasonable time, or released. The prosecution also infringes on Khaing Myo Htun’s right to freedom of expression, which is protected by article 19 of the ICCPR.
In line with the allegations made in the ALP statement, in March 2016, Fortify Rights and its partners documented seven cases of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in December 2015 and January 2016. Myanmar Army soldiers forced ethnic-Rakhine civilians to dig graves and carry supplies under the threat of death during fighting with the Arakan Army—an ethnic armed group engaged in armed conflict with the Myanmar Army since April 2015—in Rakhine State.
On March 24, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution that created a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces . . . with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”
The Fact-Finding Mission presents an opportunity for the government and authorities in Myanmar to address ongoing human rights violations committed by the Myanmar Army, including forced labor, said Fortify Rights.
On April 27, 23 international human rights organizations called on the Government of Myanmar to “fully cooperate” with the Fact-Finding Mission. On May 25, 59 Myanmar-based civil society organizations also called on the Government of Myanmar to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission. On June 30, the Myanmar government announced that it would not grant visas to the U.N. fact-finding team.
“It’s not too late for the government to reverse course and cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission,” said Matthew Smith. “Failure to cooperate will only exacerbate tensions on the ground.”
Armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army has been ongoing in Rakhine State since April 2015. The conflict has displaced more than 1,100 civilians, mostly Rakhine Buddhists, in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Kyauktaw townships. In 2016 the ALP was one of eight signatories to the “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA), which has formed the basis of “peace talks” led by the Government of Myanmar with the aim of ending the country’s decades-long civil wars. However, the Arakan Army was excluded from the NCA process and formal peace talks between the Government of Myanmar and non-state ethnic armed groups.
Deadly armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and Arakan Army has been overshadowed by Myanmar Army attacks and other human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.