BURMA: Two rights lawyers imprisoned for contempt of court

The Asian Human Rights Commission joins with the Burma Lawyers Council in condemning the detention of two Supreme Court advocates in Rangoon yesterday, 7 November 2008, and calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

Police arrested the two senior advocates, U Aung Thein and U Khin Maung Shein, at their houses last night after they were convicted for contempt of court on a complaint from Judge Daw Aye Myaing of the Hlaing Township Court. The two were taken to local police stations to be transferred to prisons where they are each set to serve a term of four months for submitting a letter to the court on behalf of their clients this November 6.

According to the contents of the letter, their clients expressed no faith in the judicial process and therefore were withdrawing power of attorney from the two lawyers. The defendants had already told this to the court but the judge had instructed them to communicate in writing through their lawyers. After she received the letter as she had ordered, she submitted it to the Supreme Court with a complaint against the two advocates under section 3 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1926. This is even though the letter was submitted expressing the views of the defendants, and the advocates were withdrawing their authority in accordance with the clients’ wishes.

The two accused lawyers were not invited to any trial at the Supreme Court and did not even know that they had been accused of an offence until they heard of it by happenchance through colleagues, while attending hearings like usual on Friday morning. The court convicted the two without hearing from them, and even though it ordinarily takes between a week and ten days to hear such a case, and a fortnight and a month for the court to issue a judgment.

The conviction of the two follows the imprisonment of two younger lawyers to six months in jail on charges of interrupting a public servant sitting in a judicial proceeding, under section 228 of the Penal Code. The two higher grade pleaders, Nyi Nyi Htwe and Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, were accused of violating the law by Judge U Aung Myint Than of the Hlaingthayar Township Court because they had asked on October 23 for the information minister and director general of police to be called as witnesses for their three clients. The judge reportedly claimed was a delaying tactic to disturb the work of the court. Police arrested Nyi Nyi Htwe at a teashop on October 29. Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min went into hiding and was sentenced at the Rangoon Northern District Court in absentia on October 30. Nyi Nyi Htwe was not able to make a defence before being sentenced. After he was imprisoned, two other lawyers tried to meet him and apply for bail but were denied access.

All four lawyers had been defending clients in cases arising from last September’s protests and also after Cyclone Nargis in May. U Khin Maung Shein and U Aung Thein had been appearing in many cases on which the AHRC has issued Urgent Appeals in 2008, including those on protest leader Ko Htin Kyaw, blogger Nay Phone Latt, monk U Gambira, human rights defender U Myint Aye and colleagues, comedian Zarganar, and student activist Ma Honey Oo. But in recent weeks some of their clients had withdrawn powers of attorney because of disgust with the faked judicial process in their cases, which the AHRC has described in detail in these and other appeals.

That the clients of U Aung Thein and U Khin Maung Shein instructed them to cease their representation because of a lack of faith in the judicial process is not only a matter of their basic legal rights but also a statement on the utterly decrepit and farcical condition of Burma’s courts, which the Asian Human Rights Commission has studied, documented, described and analysed consistently over a number of years. That the country’s legal system has been driven into the ground by the likes of the judges who made these complaints is patently obvious. Ironically, it is only thanks to the work of these lawyers and others like them that it has retained any sense of legality at all.

That these four convictions come only a few days apart suggests that they are part of a new concerted attempt by Burma’s judiciary to remove and intimidate from its courts pesky lawyers who ask uncomfortable questions of government officials, point out the innumerable breaches in law that are found in case after case, and actually attempt to represent the best interests of their clients, no matter who they may be. Not content simply to reach their predetermined outcomes of these trials, the judges can apparently no longer tolerate even the suggestion of dissenting views within their walls, let alone the notion that their office, their institution and their profession may be a joke.

With these convictions for contempt, Burma’s courts should dispense with all notions of trial, cease with the fraud of criminal hearings, and just restrict themselves to the recording of convictions and passing of sentences on the basis of instructions handed to them by police, army officers and bureaucrats.

Alternatively, the Supreme Court can order the release of these lawyers, immediately and without preconditions, and allow them to get on with their jobs.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-288-2008
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),