Myanmar authorities should drop charges against ethnic-Rakhine human rights defender Khaing Myo Htun and immediately and unconditionally free him, said Fortify Rights today. The Sittwe Township Court in Rakhine State will deliver its verdict on the charges tomorrow, October 12.
“Khaing Myo Htun should be at home with his family, not cooped up in a jail cell for defending human rights,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The authorities should immediately release Khaing Myo Htun.”
Sittwe police arrested Khaing Myo Htun, a 35-year old human rights defender with years of experience working with civil society organizations, on July 25, 2016. Lieutenant-Colonel Tin Naing Tun from the Myanmar Army’s Sittwe-based Regional Operations Command had filed sedition and incitement charges against Khaing Myo Htun under Sections 505(b) and (c) of the Myanmar Penal Code. The charges relate to an April 24, 2016 statement published by the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP)—the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army—claiming the Myanmar Army used forced labor and committed other violations against civilians in Rakhine State in early 2016. At the time of the statement, Khaing Myo Htun was the ALP’s deputy information officer.
On September 14, 2017, two defense witnesses from Rathedaung Township, Rakhine State testified in Khaing Myo Htun’s trial that in 2016 the Myanmar Army forced them to carry supplies and weapons during clashes with the Arakan Army—an ethnic armed group engaged in armed conflict with the Myanmar Army since April 2015.
Fortify Rights and its partners documented seven cases of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in December 2015 and January 2016. The Myanmar Army forced civilians to dig graves and transport supplies under the threat of death.
The Myanmar authorities have detained Khaing Myo Htun since July 2016. The court repeatedly rejected his bail applications despite numerous delays in his trial due to the absence of the plaintiff, prosecution witnesses, and the judge.
“Khaing Myo Htun is now 15 months into a detention that was arbitrary from day one,” said Matthew Smith. “Myanmar’s military leaders have learned nothing from the past if they think they can silence human rights defenders by locking them up.”
Sections 505(b) and (c) of the Myanmar Penal Code prohibit any statement, rumor or report “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public…” and “with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community…,” respectively.
On August 26, 2016, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a joint communication to the Government of Myanmar on Khaing Myo Htun’s case. The Government of Myanmar replied on October 6, 2016, stating: “[I]t does not amount to an offence…when the person making, publishing or circulating any such statement, rumour or report has reasonable grounds for believing that such statement, rumour or report is true.”
“The government’s own interpretation of the law demonstrates the baselessness of the charges against Khaing Myo Htun,” said Matthew Smith. “Myanmar needs to support and protect the critical work of its human rights defenders and peace-builders, especially in Rakhine State.”
(c) 2017 Fortify Rights