(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s security forces have recently arbitrarily arrested at least six lawyers defending political prisoners, violating both the lawyers’ rights and those of their clients, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests deprive defendants of their counsel of choice and the right to a fair trial and undermine the principle of the independence of the legal profession.
“The Myanmar junta’s wrongful arrest and prosecution of lawyers sends a chilling message that defending those arrested since the February 1 coup may lead to criminal prosecution,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “Lawyers should be permitted to do their jobs without fear of arrest and intimidation.”
At least three of the lawyers have been arrested while attending court:
- On May 24, 2021, security forces arrested Thein Hlaing Tun, a lawyer defending the deposed Naypyitaw council head Dr. Myo Aung, after a court hearing in the case in Naypyitaw.
- On May 27, security forces arrested Ayar Linn Htut while she was defending a political prisoner at Hinthada District Court, in Ayeyarwady Region.
On June 2, security forces arrested Thet Tun Oo as he tried to attend a trial for one of his clients in Myitkyina. Thet Tun Oo is defending more than 120 political prisoners in Kachin State.
The authorities have arrested other lawyers at home, on the street, or as they sought to leave the country. Security forces beat and arrested May Zun Ko, a lawyer providing pro bono legal services for detainees, as she walked down the street in Mandalay on May 1. On June 10, security forces arrested Nilar and Hpone Myat Thu, part of the defense team for the deposed Kayin state chief minister, as they tried to leave the country after learning of outstanding warrants for their arrest.
Some of the lawyers have been charged with violating section 505A of the Penal Code, a new provision put in place by the junta that makes it a criminal offense to make comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee.” Violation of the section is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Targeting lawyers for their work defending political prisoners contravenes the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. Under the Basic Principles, lawyers must be permitted to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference, and should not be subject to civil or criminal penalties for good faith statements made in defense of their clients.
The clients of the arbitrarily arrested lawyers who themselves are in custody are being denied their right to be represented by counsel of their choice and to have a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.
“Arresting defense lawyers makes it abundantly clear that Myanmar’s junta has no interest in providing a fair trial for pro-democracy activists and that justice under military rule is an illusion,” Lakhdhir said. “The United Nations and concerned governments should demand the immediate release of the six lawyers, along with all of those arbitrarily detained since the coup.”