(Yangon) – Myanmar authorities should drop the charges against two ethnic Kachin Baptist community leaders who have been arbitrarily detained since December 24, 2016, Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch said today. The Lashio District Court in northern Shan State has announced that it would deliver a verdict today, October 27, 2017.
“Two Kachin religious leaders are being prosecuted for exposing the military’s crimes,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “They should never have been locked up on these grounds in the first place.”
Police in the town of Myo Ma charged Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a 67-year-old assistant pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and Langjaw Gam Seng, a 35-year-old KBC youth leader, under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly supporting the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Dumdaw Nawng Lat was also charged with criminal defamation under section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code for providing information about the Myanmar military’s alleged airstrikes to Voice of America during a phone interview on December 1, 2016.
Police brought the charges after the two men assisted visiting journalists documenting damage allegedly caused by airstrikes near a Catholic church and other civilian structures in Muse township, northern Shan State, in late 2016. Following the publication of photos of the damaged church on December 15, Maj. Kyaw Myo Min Latt of Myanmar Army Battalion 99 arrested Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng at Byuha Gon military base on December 24. From December 25 to January 19, the Myanmar military detained the men incommunicado at Kalaya 123 military base in Nampaka township, northern Shan State, and interrogated them repeatedly.
After an international outcry calling on the army to reveal the men’s whereabouts, the military handed the two over to the Myo Ma police on January 20, 2017. The military also transferred to the police statements signed by the two men during military interrogation that they supported the KIA. Those statements are the sole evidence of the unlawful association charges provided by the prosecution during the trial. The defendants’ legal team says that the men signed these statements under severe duress and urged the judge to throw them out as inadmissible.
Dumdaw Nawng Lat’s purported statement also said that he had provided information about the Myanmar military’s alleged airstrikes during a phone interview with Voice of America. Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights oppose the use of criminal defamation in all instances.
If convicted of unlawful association, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng each face up to three years in prison and a fine. Dumdaw Nawng Lat faces an additional two years in prison and a fine if convicted of defamation.
“Myanmar’s government should be prosecuting military personnel who are responsible for serious abuses – not activists who are bringing those abuses to light,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Myanmar’s military has for decades violated the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities without ever having to fear being brought before a court.”
The prosecutions of Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng violate their rights to freedom of expression and association, Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch said.
In her September 8 report to the United Nations General Assembly, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, recommended that the Myanmar government “ensure that the numerous and continuing cases of alleged serious violations of human rights by all parties to the conflict in Shan and Kachin States are impartially and independently investigated.” Her report states: “The people of Myanmar also have a right to know the truth.”
In March, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing a fact-finding mission to investigate human rights abuses in Myanmar as a step toward holding perpetrators accountable. The Myanmar government has repeatedly stated that it will not cooperate with the mission.
“The outrageous prosecution of the two religious leaders for reporting on abuses shows the need for international inquiries in Myanmar,” Smith said. “The UN fact-finding mission is critical to uncovering the truth in all of Myanmar’s conflict areas.”