The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) shares in the global outrage that has this week greeted the sentencing of dozens of persons to lengthy jail terms for their parts in the nationwide protests against the military dictatorship there in September 2007. The cases have mostly been conducted in special courtrooms within prisons, and without any attempt at adhering to the country’s own laws, let alone international standards.
Among the cases are many on which the AHRC has already issued appeals and statements, and many others that it has been closely monitoring. Others still its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, has detailed in a special report to mark the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations (“Saffron Revolution imprisoned, law demented”, available online at www.article2.org). A few of the convicted persons and their sentences include:
1. Win Maw, six years for allegedly sending false news abroad (AHRC-UAC-200-2008)
2. Nay Phone Latt, 20-and-a-half years for material found in his email and for allegedly having had contact with dissidents overseas (AHRC-UAU-070-2008)
3. Ma Su Su Nwe, to 12-and-a-half years for leading protests against the increase in fuel prices during August 2007, whose earlier imprisonment the AHRC documented in detail (www.ahrchk.net/susunwe)
Five monks from the Ngwekyaryan Monastery in South Okkalapa Township of Rangoon, which was at the centre of the protests, were also sentenced to six-and-a-half years each.
Among the cases that are currently still being heard in a mad rush to get everything through the courts as quickly as possible are those of monk leader, U Gambira (AHRC-UAC-248-2008), and those of comedian Zarganar and magazine editor Zaw Thet Htwe (AHRC-UAU-061-2008) and human rights defender U Myint Aye (AHRC-UAC-183-2008), whose arrests followed Cyclone Nargis.
The defence counsellors for many of these and many other accused persons have also been imprisoned. Lawyers U Aung Thein and U Khin Maung Shein have been convicted of contempt of court and jailed for four months, and two other lawyers for six months on a separate charge (AHRC-STM-288-2008). One of the latter two, Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, has absconded.
Meanwhile, there are other reports of a variety of state-security-related cases being rushed through trials in bizarre proceedings the likes of which lawyers have not seen before. For instance, a judge sitting at the central prison on November 10 sentenced the editor of the News Watch private journal, U Khin Maung Aye, and one of his writers, Ko Htun Htun Thein, to three months in jail in a “closed envelope” hearing. According to observers, they were not given a chance to defend themselves but the judge just read out an order that had been given outside the courtroom. The conviction was reportedly for an article they had published that exposed wrongdoing among some government officials.
The AHRC has long insisted on close study of the courts and mechanisms of criminal justice throughout Asia as a means to understanding the prevalence of human rights violations in the region, and the convictions this week in Burma demonstrate why. It is not enough to wait until people are unjustly imprisoned to exclaim suddenly that it is the fault of a military junta who does not allow this right or that. It is necessary to explore how–even where the workings of the judiciary are perverted and demented–they are what are ultimately responsible for grievous violations.
In these cases, the defendants were all detained in the first place because they had their substantive rights to speak and organise freely denied. But it is in the denial of their basic procedural rights that they have suffered the greatest losses. Whether or not someone has been wrongly detained, where a criminal justice system is working at even a minimum level the opportunity exists to make a defence and to take issue with the workings of the state. But what their cases together reveal is a consistent narrative of illegal custody, faked or non-existent evidence, forced confession and bogus investigations. These are abuses of rights consistent with every other country in Asia where the AHRC is working actively, but in Burma’s case their scale, and the extent to which the justice system as a whole has been turned into an injustice system, makes them exceptional.
The events of last week in Burma’s courts are part of a long-term process that has utterly destroyed and confounded what was once a working judiciary. They rightly deserve our condemnation today, but more than that, they demand our persistent scrutiny. The Asian Human Rights Commission hopes that the attention drawn to Burma’s courts and law-enforcement agencies by these high-profile cases will continue and that international agencies especially, including United Nations agencies with offices inside Burma, will do much more to make sense of the real problems of criminal jurisprudence there in the coming days, weeks and years than they have in the past. In the meantime, it joins with urgent calls from around the globe for more concerted efforts worldwide to bring attention and pressure to bear on Burma’s military regime, not least of all from among those neighbours upon whom it continues to depend heavily for its existence.