Myanmar Must Release Detained Interfaith Activists

Myanmar authorities should release from prison and reverse all charges against interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt who have been held in detention since their respective arrests on July 14 and July 19, 2015, the Seagull and Civil Rights Defenders said today. An appeal was submitted to the Mandalay Division High Court on July 16, 2016 and a verdict is expected later this week.

Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, both Muslims, were sentenced to four years of imprisonment with hard labor. They were charged with violating Section 13(1) of the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act for crossing the border illegally on February 26, 2016 and under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act on April 8, 2016. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have raised concerns that these two laws are inconsistent with international human rights norms and called for their reform.

“The government led by the National League of Democracy has reiterated on multiple occasions that the rule of law must be strengthened in Myanmar,” said Harry Myo Lin, Executive Director of the Seagull. “However, that Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt still languish in prison on trumped up and politically motivated charges makes any claim to the rule of law ring hollow.”

On October 6, 2016, defense lawyer Thein Than Oo submitted a final appeal hearing to the Mandalay Division High Court calling for all charges against Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt to be deemed inadmissible. Thein Than Oo held that the charges against the interfaith activists were politically motivated and there was no clear evidence to support the charges.

In June 2013, the two activists participated in an interfaith peace conference in Laiza where the Kachin Independence Army maintains headquarters. In April 2014, they visited the Myanmar-India border and posted pictures on Facebook. They were arrested over a full year later after the second Facebook post, following an expansive social media campaign by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk groups calling for their arrest for “insulting religion.”

Their lawyer reported multiple attempts at intimidation from members of nationalist groups. Additionally, at least five members of nationalist groups were present during every court hearing.

“Peace and reconciliation has been slated as a priority issue for the new administration,” said Shaivalini Parmar, Programme Officer at Civil Rights Defenders. “The government should be protecting, not persecuting, those fighting tirelessly for religious harmony and peace at this critical juncture in Myanmar’s transition.”

The right to security of persons and freedom from arbitrary detention is firmly enshrined under international law. The absence of due process or procedure established by law qualifies as arbitrary detention under international law.

Lawyer Thein Than Oo stated that both Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt sought legal permission in the cases cited as a violation of the Immigration Act. During the trial the only evidentiary support brought forward were photographs posted on Facebook.

Pwint Phyu Latt suffers from a chronic heart condition that requires daily medication. Family members informed us that they were able to regularly bring medication to her, but the prison had no way of accommodating the necessary services to maintain her health. Zaw Zaw Latt has developed a liver problem during the course of his detention.

The conditions in Myanmar’s penal system are notoriously poor, where medical supplies are scarce and prisoners are forced to pay bribes for basic necessities or rely on family members to bring in supplies. The International Convention of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Myanmar is a signatory, stipulates that the failure to provide prisoners access to proper medical care constitutes a violation of the right to health.