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When social worker Patrick Kum Jaa Lee is led into a Rangoon courtroom today, he will have been in detention for more than three months, facing defamation charges under section 66(d) of Burma’s Telecommunications Law. His crime? Nothing more than an alleged Facebook post in October, mocking Burma’s military. The court has already rejected numerous attempts to secure him bail for health reasons even though he is suffering from asthma, hypertension, and other ailments, all exacerbated by his incarceration.

Patrick Kum Jaa Lee leaves the courthouse in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township after a hearing on December 22, 2015. © 2015 Steve Tickner/The Irrawaddy

Patrick’s case is well-known in Burma because of his popularity, and partly because of the high profile of his wife, the renowned women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu. United States Ambassador Derek Mitchell went himself to observe court proceedings in Rangoon before Christmas.

But the real reason the case has garnered so much attention is the unease it has created among activists by criminalizing satirical messages on social media, something millions of Burmese do every day. This case shows how the authorities misuse Burma’s legal system to intimidate those who engage in wit, satire, and ridicule at their expense. These prosecutions are nothing less than an affront to the right to freedom of expression.

Patrick’s case mirrors that of Chaw Sandi Htun, a young woman arrested and charged under section 66(d) in October for a Facebook post comparing the color of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s skirt with the uniform of the Burmese military commander-in-chief. In December, she was sentenced to six months in prison. Several other Burmese are also facing similar charges for Facebook posts.

President Thein Sein has failed to fulfill his 2012 pledge to free all political prisoners. There was an increase in arbitrary arrests in 2015, with more people being charged for alleged offenses related to expression and peaceful assembly, including students, journalists, land rights activists, and labor activists. While the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government committed last week to freeing all imprisoned activists, party officials have not been as publicly vocal about immediately releasing prisoners as they should be.

Once in power, the NLD will have to shoulder Burma’s international human rights obligations, which means repealing or amending the country’s repressive laws. The current Thein Sein government not only failed to address abusive legislation, but made things worse by adding new repressive laws to the statute books.

Patrick’s trial will be just be the latest example of the disconnect between Burma’s legal system and the promise of a rights-respecting democracy supported by the Burmese people in the November 2015 elections. But Patrick, Chaw Sandi Htun, and hundreds of other should not be held hostage during the hoped-for political transition. Just drop the charges and free them.

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