BURMA: Use of torture in ordinary criminal cases — Asian Human Rights Commission

Much of the human rights advocacy concerning the use of torture in Burma is centred on cases of political detainees. These cases rightly deserve close attention and study. However, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is aware that most victims of torture in Burma are not political prisoners but, as in other parts of Asia, poor citizens accused of ordinary criminal offences. The perpetrators do not discriminate. Victims range from teenage girls to the elderly.

Recently the AHRC obtained the details of a case of two young male victims who were tortured at a police station in an urban area during September 2009, over an alleged robbery. For reasons of their security, it cannot divulge the facts of this case, including the name of the police station and the officers involved. In this extract of their account, all identifying details have been omitted, but the allegations of torture are as they made them. According to the first:

“I was interrogated by eight police for three days. They said to give back what I had robbed. They covered my face with a sarong and then four or five of them assaulted me. They hit me on the cheeks and punched me in the face. They hit me with batons over a hundred times on my ankles, finger and elbow joints, shoulder blades and head. They made me stand on my tip-toes then put something with sharp points under my feet and made me hold a pose like I was riding a motorcycle, for about two hours. They prodded my back with a baton. During this time they were drunk.”

He added that his wife paid a total of the equivalent of around USD100, which is the equivalent of more than a couple of month’s wages for poor people in Burma, to police so that they would not torture him. His companion also said that, “I was detained and interrogated for two days. While interrogating me they hit my cheeks and pressed a piece of bamboo on my shins and ran it up and down. They kept my wristwatch.”

From the above allegations, we can make out the following.

First, the techniques used are advanced methods of routine torturers. They are the types commonly associated with military intelligence officers or with troops in outlying areas. The motorcycle and rolling bamboo are particularly familiar methods in the documentation in those categories of cases. However, the torturers in this case were police in an ordinary suburban station. Thus the methods of torture ordinarily associated with cases of political prisoners or alleged insurgents are actually in the entire system.

Second, the torture victims are, as noted above, typical of the overwhelming majority of victims throughout Asia: poor people accused of ordinary crimes, for which the purpose of the torture is both to extract confessions and/or to obtain money. In this case, the accused were freed after some payments. However, there is no guarantee that they will remain this way. Once they have gone through this type of experience once, it can happen again at any time. In fact, one of them had already been interrogated over the same alleged crime, and both have expressed fear that they might be picked up again any day. Neither of them was taken before a judge, even though this should have happened within 24 hours of arrest.

Third, the victims claim that they were innocent and that the police know this but they tortured them anyway to conduct a fake investigation as a favour to a local businessperson. This too is a common feature of torture throughout Asia. It is also likely that the police have interrogated, tortured and taken money from other young poor men in the vicinity over the crime for which these two were also accused. One case like this can be very profitable for police. It is common to hear reports of dozens or even hundreds of people rounded up from an area in a general attempt to find some people on which to pin blame and make money at the same time.

The distinctive problem for these victims of torture, then, is not that they were tortured over an ordinary crime in an ordinary police station. This, as noted, is an experience they have in common with victims in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan, among others. Rather, it is that there is nothing that they can do about it. In those other countries, the obstacles to bringing complaints of torture against the police are enormous, and the risks immense. But in them there at least exist courts that are in some way separate from the administration, rights groups and lawyers who can work on the cases with some effect and media that can report and publicize to generate public opinion.

By contrast, in Burma the only thing that the victims can really do is to lodge a complaint with high-up authorities in the police and ministries and hope that someone will believe them and take sympathy. If they try to lodge a complaint in the courts, not only will they risk police reprisals, against which they will have no protection–since there are no groups in the country who can hide them and no media that can report on the case to assist with their safety through some publicity–but they are unlikely to get any help from the courts either. In a 1991 case of alleged police torture the Supreme Court already made clear that unless persons alleging torture have firm physical evidence–which the methods of torture used are designed to conceal–then they need not waste their time complaining to the judiciary.

Even if the victims are lucky enough to get a sympathetic judge, it may make no difference. The courts in Myanmar have no effective authority over other parts of government and are used as an arm of the executive to obtain what it wants. They are not supposed to hit back. Unless an army general or someone else in a position of real importance is supporting a court order, the police can easily ignore it or get around it. Since in this case the allegations are against police officers, the police would use many methods to prevent them from being successful, or if in the extremely unlikely event that the court actually made an order against the police, could see that the officers concerned escape punishment by absconding and changing their identities, which has been done in the past.

Therefore, persons and groups concerned with torture in Burma should be concerned not only with its simple documentation, or with torture in only certain types of cases, but should be concerned above all to expose the absence of institutions and measures to do anything about torture, specifically, the lack of an independent judiciary and also the lack of an open media in which cases can be publicized.

The Asian Human Rights Commission also notes that the 2008 Constitution, which will not come into effect until after elections are held for semi-elected parliaments, does not prohibit torture, and that Burma has not joined the UN Convention against Torture. The AHRC urges all groups and persons concerned with human rights in Burma to actively campaign for the country to join the UN Convention against Torture and to include an express provision to prohibit the use of torture into the constitution, so that at least some minimum standards can be established upon which to begin the real work of addressing its routine use in police stations, council offices, army camps and other government facilities around the country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-220-2009
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Issues : Torture,