Decriminalize defamation laws, uphold right to freedom of expression

(YANGON, November 14, 2017)—The Government of Myanmar should immediately and unconditionally drop criminal defamation charges against 56-year-old ethnic Kachin human rights defender Dashi Naw Lawn and uphold the right to freedom of expression, said the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) and Fortify Rights today. The Mohnyin District Court will determine whether to uphold the charges against Dashi Naw Lawn today.

“The authorities want to keep what is happening in Kachin State quiet,” said Moon Nay Li, General Secretary of the KWAT. “But we are not afraid to speak the truth—the Myanmar military are killing, raping and torturing innocent people, and they must be held accountable for it.”

On June 13, Major Kyi Min Htun of Myanmar Army Light Infantry Division 101 filed a criminal defamation complaint against Dashi Naw Lawn in the Hpakant Township Court, Kachin State. Under Section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code, Dashi Naw Lawn faces up to two years in prison and/or a fine if convicted.

The complaint relates to the distribution of pamphlets in Hpakant Township on June 9 by approximately 25 youths from the Kachin National Development Foundation—otherwise known as Myusha Zinlum in the Kachin language of Jingpaw—alleging that the Myanmar military raped and killed Kachin women and destroyed villages and religious sites during the conflict in Kachin State. Dashi Naw Lawn is the General Secretary of the Kachin National Development Foundation.

Judge Soe Lin Aung from the Hpakant Township Court accepted the charges against Dashi Naw Lawn on June 13. On October 2, Dashi Naw Lawn appealed to the Mohnyin District Court to drop the charges against him.

“Reminding the authorities that they must respect human rights is not a crime,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Myanmar authorities should drop the charges against Dashi Naw Lawn.”

Fortify Rights documented the systematic use of torture by the Myanmar authorities against Kachin civilians and published evidence that the Myanmar Army had targeted, attacked, and killed civilians with impunity during fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states since 2011. The conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 civilians, many of whom reside in camps for the displaced. Myanmar authorities are responsible for avoidable deprivations of adequate food, healthcare, water and sanitation, and shelter for those who are displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states.

International law protects the right to freedom of expression and allows restrictions only in exceptional circumstances to protect vital state interests and if certain specific conditions are met. This case does not satisfy the requisite conditions.

Criminal defamation laws are frequently used by Myanmar authorities to target human rights defenders. For example, on October 27, the Lashio District Court convicted Dumdaw Nawng Lat, an ethnic Kachin religious leader, of criminal defamation for an interview he gave to Voice of America in December 2016 in which he alleged that the Myanmar military had attacked civilians during conflict with ethnic armed groups. He is currently in prison in northern Shan State, serving a sentence of four years and three months on charges including criminal defamation.

Under international law, criminal penalties, and particularly imprisonment, are considered disproportionate forms of punishment for defamation.

The Myanmar authorities should urgently decriminalize defamation and drop the charges against Dashi Naw Lawn and other human rights defenders, said KWAT and Fortify Rights.

“While the military attempts to stifle freedoms, communities in Myanmar continue to demand their rights,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “It’s time for the government to show that it’s capable of ending these horrors and hold perpetrators to account.”

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