(Sydney) – Myanmar’s military junta should drop politically motivated charges against the Kachin Baptist leader Reverend Hkalam Samson and immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said today. Rev. Samson’s next hearing, on counterterrorism law charges, which only his lawyer is permitted to attend, is scheduled for February 21, 2023, at a special court inside Myitkyina prison.
“The junta’s politically motivated case against Rev. Hkalam Samson, who is internationally renowned for his humanitarian and community work, shows that no one is safe in Myanmar,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The junta should drop the baseless charges against Rev. Samson and immediately and unconditionally release him.”
On December 5, 2022, junta immigration officials and police arrested Rev. Samson at Mandalay International Airport, preventing him from leaving the country. Junta authorities have not disclosed his whereabouts but are apparently holding him at Myitkyina prison where the hearings are being held in a closed court. His family have not been allowed to see or communicate with him since his arrest.
In December, the junta charged Rev. Samson under section 17 of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly meeting with ethnic Kachin armed group leaders in January 2022, and section 505A of the penal code for “incitement” after holding a group prayer with members of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG). The offenses carry prison terms of up to 3 years each. The junta frequently uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code to imprison peaceful activists. The hearings for these two charges concluded on February 14 with no verdict.
On February 14, the junta announced an additional charge against Rev. Samson under section 52A of the counterterrorism law for allegedly meeting with a member of the opposition National Unity Government, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Rev. Samson, 65, is the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention and is chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, which facilitated peace talks with the previous National League for Democracy party civilian government.
In 2019, he was among a group of 27 representatives from 17 countries to meet then US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC to highlight the plight of victims of ethnic and religious persecution. Shortly after the trip, the military opened a case against him for his comments at the White House criticizing Myanmar’s persecution of Christian minority groups. The authorities dropped the case after the US State Department expressed concern.
Since the military coup in February 2021, junta security forces have carried out deadly crackdowns against the political opposition to military rule, arbitrarily detained more than 19,000 people, and committed numerous crimes against humanity and war crimes across the country, documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups.
Myanmar’s junta courts are neither independent nor provide basic fair trial rights. Many trials are held in grossly unjust closed-door military tribunals or in “special courts” inside prison facilities where detainees gain access to their lawyer only on the day of their trial.
United Nations member countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in particular, Indonesia as chair of ASEAN, and other concerned governments should press the junta to immediately release all those wrongfully detained or imprisoned, including Rev. Samson.
“The prosecution of a high-profile Kachin religious figure like Rev. Samson is a heavy-handed attempt to chill all dissent among ethnic minority leaders,” Pearson said. “ASEAN and other concerned governments should press for the release of Rev. Samson and others wrongfully detained since the February 2021 coup.