A lawyer who offers free services to young people kidnapped in Myanmar was kidnapped and beaten in broad daylight in Mandalay. Such arbitrary arrests are a reality that Myanmar’s legal community has to face on a daily basis. Even before the coup, I had been campaigning for the rights of human rights defenders to be respected, such as freedom of expression.
But lately, it has become even more difficult, “says Miriam Chinnappa, who heads Myanmar’s International Bridges for Justice (IBJ), which implements large-scale criminal justice programs.
The IBJ has pioneered the work in Myanmar, training hundreds of lawyers, ensuring early legal representation and raising awareness of people’s rights. It is currently one of the few international organisations remaining in Burma, and lawyers continue to work with the criminal justice system to ensure people have access to justice. Myanmar’s “kiss of democracy” has raised the profile of young lawyers with a strong interest in human rights issues, such as freedom of expression and the rule of law, Chinnappa says.
We help them cope with stress and take care of their mental health and wellbeing in times of crisis, “he adds.
It’s very difficult to erase an entire profession you’ve dedicated yourself to and I feel dejected by the coup, “he says. Click here to register for full access or click here to receive a free subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The illegality caused by the coup has led to the arrest of more than 1,000 police and soldiers in Myanmar. He adds that he has been sued for misconduct but can’t do much about it except when asked for bribes.
It is really frustrating for lawyers that they cannot be as loud as they used to be, and even the presence of a lawyer could make the situation worse. May Zin Oo says that when police threatened a vendor with cash to rescue his nephew or have him arrested, “I couldn’t advise them to go to someone who would help negotiate. He adds that he wants the criminal justice system to work in all circumstances, but for now, many lawyers find it difficult to accept politically relevant cases at all. Bribery cannot be encouraged, you have to protect yourself and your customers.
Another lawyer, Myint Myat, said: “We couldn’t sleep, we were so afraid that police cars would come at night and we couldn’t sleep.
I lived in a city in central Myanmar and knew the local community, which relied only on a few of my colleagues. At the time, few lawyers dared, and we did not want to be confrontational, so we carefully selected our cases.
Recent changes to the Law on Mutual Legal Assistance have made it more difficult to represent those arrested. The amendments limit the powers of the Legal Assistance Committees, restrict early access to detainees and restrict the rights to legal aid. In Mandalay, the military is trying to get the names of lawyers who have stood up to help the protesters. These changes have limited the powers of legal assistance to persons arrested, charged or convicted since the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February. According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Myanmar (HRM), the number of people convicted and indicted since the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February has reached 802, of whom 802 have since been killed by the junta.
The request was initially rejected by a judge who argued that lawyers cannot be prosecuted for their work, the HRM report said.
Unfortunately, this proved to be only a temporary respite, and some lawyers went into hiding or were later charged for other reasons. Click here to register for full access or click here to receive a free subscription to HRM’s free daily newsletter.
After the coup, the military junta lifted basic security measures, including the release from arbitrary detention, and created new crimes against those who criticized the putsch and encouraged others to support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). The law has also been amended to prevent the free flow of information and punish those who disseminate information that does not portray the junta in a favourable light. Rumours sometimes circulated that one of the lawyers had an arrest warrant to avoid arrest, and that another lawyer had taken up his case. Myint Myat said: ‘As far as I’m concerned, I can’t be sure at this stage, but I’m sure of it.
Many of the protesters were minors, and focusing on juvenile cases was the best option to avoid military attention. They were always asked for bail to return to their parents, but many of the demonstrators are minors and many of them have been released.
On February 22, the day after the general strike, security forces dispersed a crowd of people who had gathered for protests, arrested hundreds and dispersed hundreds. Khin Hlaing said he and his colleagues were able to release 80 protesters the next day. The legal community has achieved some success in recent days in releasing some of those detained, but not all.
The army officers had no idea what to do with so many people and if my superiors had known about it, we would have had serious problems, “he said. A military compound holds a holding area for prisoners of the general strike in Yangon, Myanmar, February 22, 2016.
Many lawyers are used to working in hostile environments and performing their duties in areas where armed conflict is commonplace, but from time to time reports of torture and sexual assault trickle through the country. Khin Hlaing said: “Although I asked for bail, the defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of bail for those who immediately admitted their guilt. Since then, his arrest has led to reports that the military complex’s prisons are indescribably overcrowded and many of the lawyers have had to work in solitary confinement.
Being surrounded by soldiers is not a perfect environment for lawyers and judges, and not many judges have joined in. On one occasion in February, Daw Khin Myo, a lawyer from Mandalay, said that the family of the detainees had organized a protest in front of the court and encouraged judges to join the civil disobedience movement. However, when the judges heard the demonstrators, they became angry and ordered the security forces to keep the people away. We are used to the shooting, but we will not close our office because of an army crackdown, “Khin Hlaing said.
This is often explained by the lack of access to legal services and the limited number of lawyers in the country.
Daw Khin Myo said: ‘We follow military instructions and help each other across the border. If the accused is charged under 505a of the Criminal Code, which punishes members of public security services who encourage them to join the CDM, there is no provision for bail, which is requested by the judge himself. Whether or not you apply for bail depends on the attitude of a single judge and the nature of your case.
If the accused is arrested again, the bail can be revoked if the judge of the municipality that granted it is transferred to another court to consider some kind of punishment. The prosecutor appealed, but the district court ordered that he be brought to justice very quickly. This is quite unprecedented, “added Daw Khin Myo, a member of Myanmar’s Human Rights Commission (HRM) and a former policeman in Rangoon.
He recalled that the student was shot in the leg with a real bullet, but the judge granted bail, which was common before the coup. He agreed that judges felt pressure from the military, and he recalled a similar case of a student who shot himself in the leg in Yangon.