Court sentences three human rights defenders to 15 days in prison for peaceful assembly

(YANGON, September 8, 2020)—Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release three ethnic-Karen human rights defenders convicted today for holding a peaceful assembly, said Fortify Rights. The Kyauktada Township Court in Yangon today sentenced Sein Htwe, 57, Sa Thein Zaw Min, 23, and Saw Hsar Kwar Ler, 22, each to 15 days in prison for their roles in organizing an event in Yangon last month to mark Karen Martyrs’ Day.
All three are now in Insein prison.  

This is yet another example of how ethnic minorities in Myanmar continue to face harassment and imprisonment simply for seeking to exercise their fundamental rights,” said Ismail Wolff, Fortify Rights Regional Director. “National elections are just around the corner and the National League for Democracy-led government must cease its relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly. For credible elections to be held, people of all backgrounds and beliefs must be free to speak their minds and exercise their rights.”

Following three hearings over the past two weeks, the Kyauktada Township Court today convicted Sein Htwe, Sa Thein Zaw Min, and Saw Hsar Kwar Ler under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (Peaceful Assembly Law) for violating conditions set by the authorities for a gathering to mark the 70th Karen Martyrs’ Day in Yangon last month. Chapter V of Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly Law allows local authorities to set conditions for public gatherings and protests, including start and end times.

Sa Thein Zaw Min (Left), Sein Htwe (Middle), and Saw Hsar Kwar Ler (Rights) at the Kyauktada Township Court before their verdict today. ©Saw Albert Cho

The Kyauktada Township Police arrested the three activists at the August 12 gathering in Yangon, which marked the 70thanniversary of Karen Martyrs’ Day. Police charged them with failing to end the event within the permitted time. On August 27, the Kyauktada Township Court also sentenced Sein Htwe, a member of the Karen Women’s Union, to 15 days in prison on charges related to her participation in a similar event in 2019.

International human rights law and Myanmar’s domestic law protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Article 19 and Article 20(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association, respectively. These rights are also recognized as fundamental rights that states are bound to uphold under customary international law. Under Myanmar’s domestic law, Article 354(b) of the Myanmar Constitution provides for the right “to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions” and “to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession.”

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.”

“Many thought Myanmar’s notoriety for incarcerating political prisoners would have been relegated to the history books by now – sadly, that isn’t the case,” said Ismail Wolff. “The Myanmar Government must end its persecution of human rights defenders and ethnic minorities, starting by freeing all political prisoners and bringing the country’s laws in line with its commitments under international human rights law.”

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