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BURMA/MYANMAR: Activist sentenced to eleven years' jail for opposing army copper mine

August 12, 2013

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-105-2013

12 August 2013

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BURMA/MYANMAR: Activist sentenced to eleven years' jail for opposing army copper mine

ISSUES: Human rights defenders; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly; arbitrary arrest and detention
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Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has previously issued a statement on the ongoing targeting and arrests of activists and farmers opposed to the expansion of an army-backed copper mining operation in the Letpadaung Hills of Sagaing Region (AHRC-STM-108-2013). In this appeal we bring you the full details of the numerous charges brought against one of those activists, Ko Aung Soe, who was arrested with two other persons for working with farmers organising against the mining operation. Aung Soe has now been sentenced to eleven-and-a-half years in jail in patently unfair trials that closely resemble those of the decades of military rule in Burma.

CASE NARRATIVE:

Aung Soe is among other activists who have since last year been working with farmers in the vicinity of the Letpadaung Hills of Monywa District, Sagaing Region in central Burma to oppose through non-violent protest techniques the expansion of a copper mine that is a joint venture between the army's holding corporation and a Chinese partner.

Police detained Aung Soe and two farmers, Ko Maung San and Ko Soe Thu, as well as another activist and a farmer leader on April 25 after they led hundreds of villagers onto an area of land declared off-limits for mine expansion that was part of the Hse Te village, with the intention of rebuilding huts and tilling farmland. When police ordered the people off the land, Aung Soe allegedly abused them, and when the police went to arrest him farmers responded by pelting them with rocks. A series of melees followed that lasted for around half an hour.

They subsequently charged Aung Soe with eleven offences relating to a range of incidents, including protests that involved violent clashes between farmers and police in August 2012, resulting in the resistance to the mine attracting national attention and leading to the savage nighttime raids on encamped protestors at the end of November, which obtained international news coverage and resulted in the establishment of a special commission of inquiry headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aside from the patent violations of human rights arising out of the case—the denial of the rights to peaceful freedom of assembly and expression in particular—the trial also was full of procedural errors typical of the manner in which such political trumped up cases were conducted in Burma over decades of military dictatorship.

To begin with, the authorities transferred the trial to a court remote from where the alleged offences occurred. At the new court, the hearings were conducted out of public view, and a lawyer who went to represent Aung Soe was denied access to the courtroom. The court has so far also refused to release copies of verdicts in three of the cases, which are required in order to lodge applications for revision in higher courts.

Lastly, Aung Soe was convicted multiple times for the same offences, thus enhancing his punishment to eleven-and-a-half years when even if in fact guilty of the remarkable range of crimes for which he stood accused he should not have been sentenced to much longer than half that period.

Further details are provided below in the sample letter as usual.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Despite the political changes in Burma of the last couple of years, the AHRC has expressed repeated concern over the continued prosecution of activists and others for doing no more than exercising democratic rights. In a recent statement it noted that the president's commitment to free all political prisoners would not mean much unless new arrests of persons for political reasons stop (AHRC-STM-135-2013). It has also highlighted the prosecution of activists involved in the Letpadaung mine dispute and non-prosecution of police who carried out a brutal incendiary attack on protestors (AHRC-STM-108-2013, AHRC-STM-082-2013).

In this case, a matter of special concern raised in these interventions is that a special investigation commission headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi endorsed the continuation of the copper mine project and bypassed questions of police responsibility for egregious abuses of human rights that it ought to have directly addressed. Not surprisingly, the companies and officials involved all welcomed and endorsed the commission's report and promised to give it effect, much to the disappointment of local people affected by the mine and their supporters. The abuse of human rights since has continued under the cover of the investigation commission's report, and therefore, the commission also bears some responsibility for the enthusiasm with which the police and other authorities have taken to the pursuit of activists opposing the mine in the period since.

For many more cases and issues concerning human rights in Burma, visit the AHRC's country homepage: http://www.humanrights.asia/countries/burma.


SUGGESTED ACTION:
Please write to the persons listed below to call for the charges against Aung Soe to be reviewed and for him to be released without delay. Please note that for the purpose of the letter, the country should be referred to by its official title of Myanmar, rather than Burma.

Please note that the AHRC is writing separate letters to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Myanmar and the UN Special Representative on human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

SAMPLE LETTER:

Dear ……………..,

MYANMAR: Lengthy jail term of land rights activist for organizing non-violent resistance to copper mining operation

Name of accused:
Ko Aung Soe, member of the Yangon People's Support Network

Names of complainant officials:
1. Inspector Hla Ngwe, Myanmar Police Force
2. Police Major Kyaw Aung
3. Captain Kyaw Hla Moe (retired), Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd.
4. U Kyaw Thaung, Head, Salingyi Township Administration

Date of incidents: August 2012 – April 2013

Place of incident: Letpadaung Hills, Monywa Township, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

Charges and sentences:
1. Common intention to cause hurt to a public servant on duty, criminal trespass, unlawful assembly; 2 years under Penal Code sections 333/447/143/34
2. Criminal trespass, wrongful restraint and unlawful assembly; six months under Penal Code sections 447/341/143
3. Abetment of insulting religion; 4 years for two counts under Penal Code sections 295/295A/117
4. Abetment of other offences; 2 years for two counts under Penal Code section 117
5. Rioting, unlawful assembly, defamation; 1 year under Penal Code sections 143/147/500
6. Disobedience of a public servant; one-and-a-half years for three counts under Penal Code section 188
7. Failure to obtain a permit for a public assembly; 6 months under the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, 2011, section 18

Case numbers 3162-67/2013, 3215-3216/2013 and three other cases (documentation not yet made available), Shwebo Township Court, Judge Daw Tin Tin Nwei presiding

I am writing to express my outrage that a human rights defender joining with farmers in Myanmar to oppose the expansion of an army-backed copper mining operation has been sentenced to eleven-and-a-half years in prison, and to urge that he be released without delay.

According to the information that I have received, Aung Soe was detained on 25 April 2013 and charged subsequently with a range of offences related to protests that resulted in violence between farmers and police in August 2012.

I am informed that the cases brought against Ko Aung Soe are full of errors typical of those cases brought against human rights activists in the period of direct military rule in Myanmar that people had hoped would by now be behind it. In particular, I draw your attention to the following:

1. The trial was conducted in a court outside of the township where the offences occurred on the flimsy pretext of security concerns when in fact the purpose was to conduct the trials with as little public attention and access as possible. In fact, judges are empowered to take a range of measures to secure their courthouses from possible security threats (para. 48, Courts Manual) and the transfer of the trial to another township was unnecessary other than for the purpose of making it difficult for interested members of the public to attend. Furthermore, it does not fall under any of the criteria for transfer provided under section 526 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

2. The hearings were conducted in closed court and a lawyer who went to represent Aung Soe was denied access to the courtroom. The court has so far also refused to release copies of verdicts in three of the cases, which are required in order to lodge applications for revision in higher courts.

3. Aung Soe was convicted of multiple offences for what were in fact parts of the same offence. Specifically, under Penal Code section 71 he should have been convicted of no more than one count of abetment of insulting religion and abetment of other offences. The two offences involving criminal trespass overlap and should have been treated as a single offence in parts for the purpose of punishment.

In view of the above flaws in the cases, the fact that Aung Soe was doing no more than exercising his human rights and democratic rights to non-violent expression of opposition to the mining project, and also in light of the fact that the police have throughout events at Letpadaung enjoyed their usual impunity for whatever offences committed on members of the public, I call for the convictions of Aung Soe to be reviewed and for him to be released from prison without delay.

I also take this opportunity to express concern over the more general vigorous campaign of intimidation and arrest that is underway against opponents of the Letpadaung copper mine, both in the region of the mine and in other parts of Myanmar where protests against the mine have occurred. I can only assume that the reason for the campaign is in large part that the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd is one of the two corporations responsible for the expansion of the project. Although the military in Myanmar has stepped back from its frontal political role, it is manifest from the manner in which this matter is being handled that whenever major financial or other interests of the armed forces are at stake it will not hesitate to resort to the same kinds of tactics for which it became notorious over many decades. As long as it continues to do so, the democratization process in Myanmar, while in certain respects tangible will in many other respects remain ephemeral.

It is particularly scandalous that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as chairperson of the committee that investigated the mining operation and approved its expansion on the ground that Myanmar cannot afford to upset its powerful neighbor now appears to take no responsibility for the consequences of that investigative report: namely, the arrest of activists like Aung Soe who are doing no more than exercising what they understand to be their rights in a democratizing country under the cover of the protection provided to the authorities by the contents of the report—both in terms of its endorsement of the mining project and also its whitewashing of police responsibility for the savage nighttime attack with incendiary weapons on peacefully encamped demonstrators at the end of November 2012.

Therefore, I urge all persons and parties concerned in generating violence by encouraging the continuation of this mine project without proper democratic consultations with the affected villagers to review their positions in light of the ongoing physical and legal attacks on human rights activists and farmers and reopen serious and meaningful discussions with affected persons that will fully take their views into account and treat the dispute over the mine as an opportunity for democratic growth matching the aspirations of Myanmar's people, rather than another so-called “state project” where the army, powerful investors and other hidden interests run roughshod over the rights of ordinary folk, as has been the case for so long.

Yours sincerely,

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PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1.U Hla Min
Minister for Home Affairs
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +95 67 412 439

2. U Thein Sein
President of Myanmar
President Office
Office No.18
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR

3. U Tun Tun Oo
Chief Justice
Office of the Supreme Court
Office No. 24
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: + 95 67 404 080/ 071/ 078/ 067 or + 95 1 372 145
Fax: + 95 67 404 059

4. Dr. Tun Shin
Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General
Office No. 25
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 404 088/ 090/ 092/ 094/ 097
Fax: +95 67 404 146/ 106

5. U Zaw Min
Director General
Myanmar Police Force
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 67 412 079/ 549 393/ 549 663
Fax: +951 549 663 / 549 208

6. Thura U Aung Ko
Chairman
Pyithu Hluttaw Judicial and Legislative Committee
Office of the Pyithu Hluttaw
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR

7. U Aung Nyein
Chairman
Pyithu Hluttaw Judicial and Legislative Committee
Committee for Public Complaints and Appeals
Office of the Pyithu Hluttaw
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR

8. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Chairwoman
Pyithu Hluttaw Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee
Office of the Pyithu Hluttaw
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR

9. U Win Mra
Chairman
Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
27 Pyay Road
Hlaing Township
Yangon
MYANMAR
Tel: +95-1-659 668
Fax: +95-1-659 668

10. Ko Ko Hlaing
Chief Political Advisor
Office of the President
Naypyitaw
MYANMAR
Tel: +95 1 532 501 ext-605 / +95 1 654 668
Fax: +95 1 532 500/ +95 1 654 668


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

Document Type :
Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID :
AHRC-UAC-105-2013
Countries :
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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.