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Two ethnic-Karen activists charged under peaceful assembly law

(YANGON, August 13, 2020)—Myanmar authorities should immediately drop criminal complaints against Sa Thein Zaw Min and Saw Kwar Ler, two ethnic Karen human rights defenders who organized and attended a gathering in Yangon to commemorate Karen Martyrs’ Day, said Fortify Rights today. Kyauktada Township police interrupted the scheduled event yesterday and arrested the two organizers, accusing them of holding the event past the permitted time period.
 
The two human rights defenders face up to one month imprisonment and/or 10,000 Myanmar Kyat (US$7.25) in fines under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (the “Peaceful Assembly Law”) for allegedly violating conditions set by the authorities for the gathering.

“Myanmar’s relentless assault on freedom of expression must stop,”said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Marking the anniversary of Karen Martyrs’ Day is not a crime, and the complaint against Sa Thein Zaw Min and Saw Kwar Ler should be dropped.”

On August 12, ethnic-Karen human rights defenders organized a gathering in Maha Bandula Park located in front of Yangon City Hall to mark the 70th anniversary of Karen Martyrs’ Day. According to the organizers, the authorities granted permission to hold the gathering from 8 a.m. and to 2 p.m. However, the Kyauktada Township police interrupted the event and arrested the two organizers around 11:30 a.m., claiming that permission had only been granted for the event to continue to 11:00 a.m. The police held Sa Thein Zaw Min, 23, and Saw Kwar Ler, 22, at the Kyauktada Township police station before releasing them on personal recognizance at 2:45 p.m.

An ethnic Karen human rights defender at the Karen Martyrs’ Day event in Yangon on August 12, 2020. © 70th Karen Martyrs’ Day Facebook Page

Chapter V of the Peaceful Assembly Law allows local administrators to set conditions for gatherings. Violations of these conditions are punishable under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.     
 
Karen Martyrs’ Day commemorates the death of Karen leader Saw Ba U Kyi, a founding father of the Karen National Union (KNU), who the Myanmar army killed in 1950. The Myanmar military and the KNU’s army—the Karen National Liberation Army—have been at war since 1949.  
 
Previous Karen Martyrs’ Day events have sparked similar backlash from the government. The Kyauktada police similarly interrupted a gathering last year in Maha Bandula Park to mark Karen Martyrs’ Day and arrested the organizers, including Sa Thein Zaw Min and Saw Albert Cho and Karen woman human rights defender Naw Ohn Hla. The Kyauktada Township Court sentenced the three to 15 days’ imprisonment for violating Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.

The Government of Myanmar should amend the Peaceful Assembly Law and bring it in line with international human rights law, said Fortify Rights.
 
Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. However, as noted by former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai, “freedom is to be considered the rule and its restriction the exception.” Furthermore, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has held that imposing criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for holding a peaceful assembly is incompatible with human rights law.

In April 2020, Athan and Fortify Rights documented violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under the Peaceful Assembly Law in Myanmar in a joint report entitled, “Our Demands are for All Students: Violations of Students’ Rights in Mandalay, Myanmar.

“The Peaceful Assembly Law should facilitate protests, not criminalize them,” said Matthew Smith. “It’s time to amend this law and stop the arrests of peaceful protesters.”

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