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Arrest of Student on Trumped-up Charges is a Damning Indictment of Justice in Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  September 23, 2014

15 Sept 2014 Oo Aung Facebook IrrawaddyOn 13 September 2014, police arrested female human rights defender (HRD) Phyu Hnin Htwe at her house in Patheingyi Township, Mandalay Region, and sent her to Monywa Prison, Sagaing Region, where she is currently being detained.  Phyu Hnin Htwe is a second-year Burmese student at Mandalay’s Yadanabon University, and is also an activist and member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).  She has helped farmers who have been forcibly evicted to make way for the infamous Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region, going to the Letpadaung area at weekends and supporting displaced farmers.

Her arrest ostensibly relates to a murky incident that took place on 18 May of this year.  Two Chinese workers – employees of Wanbao company, the main company involved in the joint venture – were seized from the Letpadaung area, taken to a monastery in Hsete Village, and held there for about 30 hours.  The incident followed efforts by Wanbao employees to restart measuring plots of land for which compensation had not even been provided, in spite of villagers’ protests, thereby provoking their anger.

As a result, Phyu Hnin Htwe and six villagers were charged with kidnapping and abduction under Articles 364 and 368 of the Penal Code, which prescribe sentences of up to ten years’ imprisonment.  While the case against five of the villagers was quickly dropped, charges still remain against Phyu Hnin Htwe and local villager Win Kyaw, neither of whom attended court in May.

Phyu Hnin Htwe’s hearing is scheduled for today, 23 September, at the Yinmabin Township Court.  It is not yet clear whether she has a lawyer.  The ABFSU has already released a statement calling for her immediate release, as well as launching a campaign calling for Phyu Hnin Htwe’s release.  Furthermore, at the Women’s Forum for Peace on 20 September in Rangoon, organized by the Women’s Organizations Network (Myanmar) and the Women’s League of Burma, more than 350 women participants representing women’s groups from different parts of Burma signed a petition to be submitted to the Burma Government calling for Phyu Hnin Htwe’s immediate and unconditional release.

While abducting workers clearly falls outside the parameters of peaceful protest, and is a breach of national and international law, serious doubts persist as to whether Phyu Hnin Htwe was even present in the first place, still less whether she was implicated in the alleged abduction.  The ABFSU insists that she was merely teaching some extra classes to children in Hsete Village when the two Chinese workers were brought into the village.

That of course should be for the judiciary to decide.  Yet Burma’s notoriously corrupt, incompetent and government-controlled court system leaves little room for optimism.  With judicial transparency, capacity and independence at such a low level, the chances of Phyu Hnin Htwe’s fair trial rights being respected – including the right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the right, under Article 11(1) of the UDHR, to be presumed innocent until found guilty of any criminal activities – are slim to none.

In fact, given the Burma Government’s tendency towards silencing any critics of the powers-that-be – namely, the government itself, the Burma Army, and their cronies and corporate interests – it is more than likely that Phyu Hnin Htwe is being targeted for her legitimate human rights work.  The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states (under Article 1): “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”  Moreover, Article 2 stipulates: “Each State has a prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms […].”  The Burma Government should therefore be enabling, rather than restricting, the peaceful and legitimate human rights activities of brave, hard-working and principled HRDs such as Phyu Hnin Htwe.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true: the current pre-election climate in Burma is proving unfavorable to HRDs, to say the least.  There are reportedly seven ABFSU students currently facing trial for offenses under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act (Assembly Act), and under more conventional criminal law, particularly Article 505(b) of the Penal Code.  Most have been protesting against the National Education Bill, or supporting farmers who protest against illegal forced land evictions, or even, in one case, conducting a lone protest (in no way an “assembly”), calling for national unity on International Peace Day.  Such arrests occur despite the fact that the rights to peaceful assembly and association are protected under international law, namely Article 20(1) of the UDHR and Articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

We are inspired by all HRDs in Burma for continuing their hugely valuable and difficult work in spite of these repeated incidents of judicial harassment, and the fear and suffering that they and their families inevitably face.  We call upon the international community to peer behind the veil of the “political reforms” in Burma, and start to prioritize rights-based engagement over devil-may-care economic investment; and, finally, we call upon the Burma Government and the judiciary to drop all trumped-up charges against Phyu Hnin Htwe, and release her and all other HRDs in Burma immediately and unconditionally.

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