The detention of a distinguished Rohingya lawyer and rights activist has been extended by a court in western Burma, prompting renewed calls from rights groups for his immediate amnesty.
“What we’re seeing are repeated court appearances without verdict,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights. “We can’t say with any confidence when we might expect a verdict because the process is opaque and subject to questionable political pressures. The court should move to drop all charges and release him unconditionally.”
Kyaw Hla Aung, 74, has been detained in Sittwe since July 2013, when he was arrested for his alleged involvement in demonstrations against a citizenship verification programme that required ethnic Rohingyas to identify themselves as “Bengali”.
On Monday, the Sittwe district court postponed Kyaw Hla Aung’s proceedings until 18 August and denied him bail. Authorities in Sittwe could not be reached for comment.
“Rakhine [Arakan] State authorities have kept Kyaw Hla Aung locked up for over a year, demonstrating the urgent need for the central government to intervene to free him,” said Smith, adding that the charges are “completely without merit”, and are part of a “broader campaign of persecution” against the Muslim minority.
Kyaw Hla Aung now faces six charges that could land him in jail for up to 20 years if found guilty. Charges include rioting, being armed with a deadly weapon, organising or abetting unlawful assembly, robbery, obstructing the duties of public servants and inciting unrest. The last charge falls under Burma’s controversial article 505(b), an often-criticised part of the colonial-era penal code that loosely defines violations and has been used against a number of activists in relation to public gatherings.
The charges were brought against him shortly after an April 2013 protest against a population survey in Arakan State, which required stateless Rohingya Muslims to “register” as Bengalis. Many of them refused; the Burmese government and much of the general population deny the existence of a Rohingya ethnic identity, claiming instead that they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Burma’s estimated one million Rohingyas are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on movement, family life and resources. Rights groups, including Fortify Rights, have accused the government of creating unlawful policies of systemic persecution. Burma’s former United Nations rights rapporteur, Tomás Ojea Quintana, left his post in March with the warning that crimes against humanity may have been committed against the Rohingya community.
While harmful policies — which include restrictions on marriage and childbearing — are believed to have been in place for decades, remaining freedoms have deteriorated for Burma’s Rohingyas since deadly riots erupted in Arakan State in June 2012. Several bouts of violence have left hundreds dead and about 140,000 displaced, many still living in remote, crowded, under-resourced camps that are systematically denied life-saving assistance such as medicine and clean water.
At the end of her first official visit to Burma in July, the current UN rights rapporteur, Yanghee Lee, described the situation in Arakan as “deplorable”, emphasising that “the health situation in the Muslim IDP camps is of particular concern”.
Lee also said that she has “received continuing allegations of violations against the Muslim community, including arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment in detention, death in detention, the denial of due process and fair trial rights”. The rapporteur met with Kyaw Hla Aung and several other Muslim detainees in Sittwe, but did not disclose any details about their treatment or discussions. Concerns remain about Muslims in Arakan’s isolated prisons, precisely because their communications are so tightly controlled.
“It’s important to remember that Myanmar still lacks an independent judiciary, particularly on issues related to the Rohingya,” said Fortify Rights’ Smith. “This isn’t necessarily the fault of the court. There are a lot of political forces at play.”
Kyaw Hla Aung has a long history of political imprisonment; he has been jailed four times since 1986, spending a total of more than ten years in prison for various charges related to his advocacy work.
Upon his arrest last year, numerous rights groups rallied for his release. Amnesty International issued an urgent call for action based on the belief that he was “targeted as an influential human rights defender with connections to the international community”.