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25 August – 31 August: Draconian Sentences of Unity Weekly Journalists Must at the Very Least be Drastically Reduced

September 2, 2014

10 July 2014 Photo Lwin Lwin Myint IrrawaddyOn Thursday 28 August, lawyer Robert San Aung submitted to Magwe regional court the final appeal against the harsh verdicts brought against the five Unity Weekly journalists on10 July.  They were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labor following the publication of a report in January of this year that gave details of an alleged chemical weapons facility in central Burma.  They were charged for trespass and for “disclosing state secrets” in violation of the 1923 Official Secrets Act (OSA).  Robert San Aung submitted the appeal on the grounds that the four reporters are innocent and should therefore be released from prison, and that the sentence of the journal’s executive be reduced by half.  The Magwe regional court is expected to issue a decision within a month.

While the offense under Section 3(1)(a) of the OSA is a strict liability offense – meaning that the prosecution only has to prove that the defendants were in the vicinity of the prohibited place for them to be found guilty – in order for the other convictions to stand, the burden is on the prosecution to show that the secrets alleged to have been leaked were intended to or were likely to have breached state security or assisted an enemy.  The journalists must be shown to have leaked detailed and useful information, to have done more than just report that the facility was a weapons factory.  It is not clear that the prosecution ever satisfied this requirement.

Even so, if the appeal submission fails to convince the court either that the journalists are not guilty of any substantive offenses, or that there are specific and legitimate defenses under the OSA that can be relied upon, then at the very least the appeal should be successful on grounds of mitigation regarding the alleged offenses, meaning that the sentences should at a minimum be drastically reduced.

Mitigation can be argued on a number of individual grounds.  First, if the intention of the journalists was to monitor and document illegal land grabs and difficulties faced by farmers in the area concerned, then it can be argued that the nature of the facility that was documented and photographed was incidental to the objectives of the journalists.  In other words, the actual focus of the investigation was the illegal land grabs occurring in the area, not the military facility.  Second, the seriousness of the alleged offenses is in no way commensurate to the severity of the sentences.  Ten years’ imprisonment with hard labor is totally disproportionate, whichever way the alleged offenses are considered.  Finally, mitigation can also be argued on personal grounds: the majority of the defendants are very young, while some of them have little journalistic experience or were merely assisting in the process of gathering information.

Furthermore, aside from the disproportionality of the sentences, there are some serious human rights concerns, which are worth pointing out if Burma genuinely aspires to earn the respect of the international community and is serious about its democratic reforms.

The imposition of forced labor as a sentence is draconian and barbaric, and a throwback to the era of the pre-2011 military regime.  Forced labor is a clear breach of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which prohibits “torture [and] cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The sentencing of the journalists also arguably qualifies as “arbitrary detention” – on the grounds both that their fair trial rights have been violated and that they were exercising their rights to the fundamental freedoms, specifically their rights to freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19 of both the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Arbitrary detention is a breach of Article 9 of both the UDHR and the ICCPR.

If the appeal is rejected out of hand, it will be a dark day for justice in Burma.  Not only will it reaffirm people’s complete lack of faith in the independence and competence of the country’s judiciary, it will also underline the fact that there is no rule of law in Burma, that the interests of the rich and powerful will always prevail over the lives and livelihoods of the people.  Moreover, should there still be any doubt, it will show the world that Burma is still a serial abuser of human rights, where there is no freedom of expression and no freedom of the media, despite the so-called media reforms; where fair trial rights are not respected; where land rights abuses are endemic and occur with impunity; and where people are arbitrarily detained and subjected to cruel and degrading punishments.

We call upon all stakeholders – the international community, the political opposition, civil society and the people of Burma – to put pressure on the Burma government to respect the independence of the judiciary.  And we call upon the judiciary to do the right thing and either acquit the Unity Weekly journalists or to drastically reduce their draconian sentences.

News Highlights

According to Burma’s Central Census Commission that conducted the  first census in Burma in three decades, the preliminary results of the country’s census is surprisingly only 51.41 million – far fewer than the estimate of 60 million given for many years

Inside Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi urges youth members of National League for Democracy to take more responsibility within the party as it prepares for the general election next year

Burma’s Election Commission Director says political parties that register after the last general election must contest at least three seats in the upcoming by-elections, otherwise they could be dissolved according to the Political Registration Law

Representatives from both government and ethnic armed organizations to form a Working Committee to further discuss the ceasefire “Code of Conduct” before signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement

Shan, Wa and Mongla army leaders meets with Burma’s president Thein Sein and army chief Min Aung Hlaing to discuss nationwide ceasefire accord, development projects, and drug eradication

Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand warns that the health situation of internally displaced people from the conflict in Kachin State is worsening due to lack of medicine and inadequate nurses, with women and children dying

According to Burma’s Ministry of Immigration and Population website, Burma to start accepting visa applications online and promises to process them within five days, offering tourists a maximum stay of 28 days in the country


Burma government officials in Tanintharyi Region say they are looking for land to accommodate Burmese refugees from nine refugee camps in Thailand and claim they would be able to return home soon, but the refugees doubt the land that the government-offered land will be legitimate

During talks between Bangladesh Foreign Secretary and Burma’s visiting Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Burma agrees to take back its Rohingya refugees living in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh

Burma police in Tenasserim Region says they have seized nearly 2.4 million ecstasy pills valued at more than US$17 million from a boat heading to Malaysia from Kawthaung, making it the largest drug bust in Burma’s history


The US’s ACO Investment Group and Burma’s Ministry of Energy sign a US$480 million deal to build two 150-megawatt solar energy plants to help ease electricity shortages in Burma, making it the largest investment by the US since lifting sanctions on Burma

US President Barack Obama to visit Burma in November to attend the East Asia Summit

Only five to ten foreign banks will be selected in September to fully operate in Burma out of the 25 that have applied

Russia to increase trade with Burma to $500 million a year by 2017 – its current trade levels with Burma are about $114 million a year


Myanmar’s Great Power Balancing Act
By Jacob Goldberg
The Diplomat

For Burma’s Rohingya, a Permanent Segregation?
By Thin Lei Win
The Irrawaddy

Latest from the Blog

Elusive Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement Continues to Distract from Substantial Peace Talks
By Burma Partnership


TAKE ACTION!  Write to Burma authorities, calling on them to release human rights activists Htin Kyaw, Tin Maung Kyi, Zaw Win and Naung Naung immediately and unconditionally, and urging them to ensure the four men are not tortured or ill-treated, or transferred to remote prisons as well as they have regular access to their families, lawyers of their choosing and medical treatment when they need it

At Mandalay’s Yadanabon University, about 100 students protest against Burma’s newly controversial National Educational Bill approved by both houses of parliament, claiming it creates excessive restrictions on the formation of student unions and centralizes Burma’s education system

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, 40 Burmese migrant workers refuse to work in protest against being held in  bonded labour, low wages, having their passports held by employers, and other bad work conditions

Statements and Press Releases

Rights Groups Call for an End to Enforced Disappearances in ASEAN
By 39 Civil Society Organizations

Burma: Sustained EU Engagement at UN Critical to Support Human Rights Reforms
By Amnesty International, International Federation for Human Rights, Altsean-Burma

Boost for Burma with new UK funding
By UK Department for International Development

ညီညြတ္ေသာ တိုင္းရင္းသားလူမ်ဳိးမ်ား ဖက္ဒရယ္ေကာင္စီ တိုင္းရင္းသား လက္နက္ကိုင္ ေတာ္လွန္ေရးအဖြဲ႔အစည္းမ်ား၊ ႏိုင္ငံေရးပါတီမ်ား၊ ဒီမိုကေရစီ အင္အားစုမ်ား၊ အမ်ဳိးသမီးမ်ားႏွင့္ လူငယ္အင္အားစုမ်ား ေတြ႕ဆုံေဆြးေႏြးပြဲ၏ သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္
By United Nationalities Federal Council

This post is in: Weekly Highlights