(New York) - Burma's military government should immediately exonerate and free about 70 activists who are being tried by unfair courts for their peaceful participation in the protests in September 2007, Human Rights Watch said today. A court inside Rangoon's notorious Insein prison today sentenced 14 of them to 65-year prison terms.
In the past two weeks the Burmese government has stepped up legal proceedings against dissidents from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the "'88 Generation Students." More than 70 political activists, monks, nuns, journalists, and labor activists who participated in the August and September 2007 demonstrations are being tried or have been summarily convicted in secret trials in prisons and closed court hearings.
"It's no secret that Burma's military rulers show no respect for law, but these last few weeks show a more concentrated crackdown on dissent clearly aimed at intimidating the population," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These peaceful activists should not be on trial in the first place, let alone thrown in prison for years after unfair trials."
Family members often have not been permitted to attend the current trials. In some cases legal representation has been denied, and four lawyers for political activists have been sentenced to prison time for contempt when they tried to withdraw their representation at their clients' request or protested unfair hearings.
Human Rights Watch said that the increased efforts to prosecute political activists confirm that Burma's rulers are undermining basic freedoms more strongly than ever as they prepare for multi-party elections in 2010. Members of opposition parties and political activists have been sentenced under archaic laws that criminalize free expression, peaceful demonstration, forming organizations, and holding foreign currency without permission.
"Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms," Pearson said. "Prosecuting lawyers who defend activists shows that the generals don't want to leave anything at these trials to chance."
At least three reporters have also been convicted in the current round of trials, including a prominent blogger, Nay Phone Latt, who was sentenced on November 10, 2008, to 20 years in prison for his reporting during the September 2007 demonstrations, and two journalists reporting on a corruption case, who received three months each.
Human Rights Watch urged countries in the region, particularly China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to press the Burmese government to drop charges or exonerate political activists, lawyers, and others detained for exercising their internationally protected rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
"The arrests of Nay Phone Latt and two other journalists is a clear attempt to intimidate Burma's independent media from reporting on these trials," said Pearson. "Countries able to influence the Burmese junta should not stand by and let this happen."
After the major demonstrations in September 2007, the Burmese military government arrested hundreds of political activists and protesters (http://hrw.org/reports/2007/burma1207/ ). According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), more than 2,100 political activists are now in prison in Burma, more than double the number of political prisoners before the September 2007 protests.
Trials of activists and lawyers since late October 2008 include:
- On October 23, the North Okkalapa Court sentenced seven Buddhist monks and seven nuns to four years of hard labor for "injuring or defiling a place of worship" (section 295 of the Penal Code) and "insulting ... either spoken or written ... another religion" (295(A)). They were arrested at two schools in Rangoon in September 2007, and include a 65-year-old abbot, U Yevada, and an 80-year-old nun, Daw Ponnami. Family members were not permitted to attend their trials, and their lawyers were often barred from attending hearings.
- On October 24, six members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Mandalay - Daw Win Mya Mya, Tin Ko Ko, U Than Lwin, U Kan Tun, Win Shwe, and Min Thu - were sentenced on charges of "intent to cause rioting" (section 153) and "statements conducting to public mischief ... which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public" (section 505(B)), to prison terms ranging from two to 13 years for their involvement in demonstrations in September 2007.
- In late October, 11 members of the NLD youth wing from Hlaing Thar Yar township in Rangoon went on trial in the local public court, charged with instigating public unrest. They were arrested in 2007 and again in September 2008 for staging peaceful protests. Their lawyers were arrested on October 30 for protesting unfair legal proceedings (see below).
- On October 29, nine members of the '88 Generation Students group - Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Hla Myo Naung, Htay Kywe, Mya Aye, Nyan Lin, Phone Cho, Aung Thu, and Aung Naing - went on trial in Insein prison. They were among 34 activists arrested in August 2007. The nine are charged with a total of 22 offenses including unlawful association, criticizing the National Convention constitutional process (Law 5/96 of 1996), engaging in anti-government propaganda, and instigating public unrest, which could garner each activist an estimated 150 years in prison.
- The nine defendants protested against the trial being conducted at Insein in secret. As a result, on the same day, all nine were charged with contempt of court and sentenced to six months in jail. They were subsequently transferred to a remote prison in Maubin in Irrawaddy Division, where family members and supporters cannot visit them, to continue the trials. On October 30, four lawyers representing NLD defendants were charged with contempt of court. Nyi Nyi Htwe and Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min were sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court under section 228 of the Penal Code for trying to call a senior government official as a witness in a case against two people who had demonstrated against the military government. U Aung Thein and U Khin Maung Shein were sentenced to four months each under section 3 of the Contempt of Court Act, after their clients asked them to withdraw counsel in protest against restrictive measures during trial, including lacking access to an important witness and not permitting family members of the accused to attend proceedings. Three of the lawyers are already in custody and one is in hiding.
- On November 2, five labor activists - Thu Rein Aung, Kyaw Min, Kyaw Kyaw, Wai Lin, and Nyi Zaw - were transferred from Rangoon to prisons in Western and Northern Burma to begin closed trials related to their activities during the September 2007 demonstrations.
- On November 3, eight activists from newly formed local groups "The Justice" and "The Best Manure" went on trial, charged with offenses related to illegally forming organizations. They had been arrested in September 2008.
- On November 5, five Buddhist monks arrested at Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery during the September 2007 crackdown went on trial at the South Okkalapa Court in Rangoon, charged with "injuring or defiling a place of worship" (section 295) and "intent to cause fear or alarm in the public" (section 505(B)). After staging a brief demonstration outside the court by chanting prayers, the five were additionally charged on November 5 with obstructing the course of justice (section 353), for which they face an additional two-year sentence.
- On November 5, two journalists, Khin Maung Aye and Tun Tun Thein from News Watch Journal, were arrested over articles in their July publication exposing local corruption and summarily sentenced to three months in prison.
- On November 10, the blogger Nay Phone Latt was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his web postings and reporting of activities during the September 2007 demonstrations. He was arrested in January 2008.
- On November 11, 14 activists arrested during the August 2007 demonstrations were sentenced by a tribunal inside Insein prison to prison sentences of 65 years each for offenses such as holding foreign currency without permission and lacking permits for various types of ordinary equipment. In addition, a prominent labor activist, Ma Su Su Nway, was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison for her peaceful protests in August and November 2007. She was charged with treason (section 124) and intent to cause fear or harm to the public (section 505(B)).