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NEWS

Guest Post: A Dangerous Episode of Political Theatre in Mandalay

editor - January 12, 2016 - Torture

On December 7, I watched through the doorway of a small, Myanmar flagpacked courtroom in Mandalay as a judge read out a verdict condemning 12 Muslim men to five years imprisonment for allegedly receiving training from a group called the “Myanmar Muslim Army.” Today, I have no greater knowledge regarding the composition or activities of that group—nor any firmer indication that it even exists—than I had when I began monitoring the trial several months ago.

The government’s case against the 12 defendants was based on allegations that some of them—the number was never precisely stated—travelled to Thailand to receive training from a previously unknown armed group. During a trial that lasted more than a year, the prosecution failed to present even a shred of credible evidence regarding the Myanmar Muslim Army or the defendants’ alleged connection to the group.

At times during cross examination, government witnesses referenced a law from the British colonial era, the Official Secrets Act, to justify their failure to support their claims. More often, they simply stated that information had come “from above.”

One defendant, Soe Moe Aung, 24, alleged in front of the presiding judge that he was tortured and given unknown pills and injections during a week-long interrogation. My colleagues and I at Fortify Rights believe other defendants were also tortured. We called on the government to immediately investigate allegations of torture related to the trial and to uphold due process rights.

In many ways, this trial followed the playbook of prior military governments. For decades, ruling generals were known to deliver verdicts in sealed envelopes, rendering judges and lawyers as mere actors in a poorly-scripted charade. On December 7, we wondered whether the judge was reading the verdict for the first time.

Even the law that was used to prosecute these men was a blast from the past. Successive military regimes used Section 5(J) of the Emergency Provisions Act—an extraordinarily vague provision criminalizing conduct intended to “undermine the security of the Union”—to lock away hundreds of political prisoners. This case represents one of the few instances in which the law has been used in recent years.

The impact of this case extends far beyond the lives of the defendants and their families. Myanmar is currently experiencing a rising tide of Buddhist nationalism that in recent years has frequently manifested in deadly episodes of anti-Muslim violence. Many believe that hard-line elements within the government and military are proactively stoking fears of a violent Muslim threat to justify their continued heavy hand. The baseless conviction of these 12 men will throw fuel on that fire while deepening the belief of Muslims in Myanmar that they are more likely to be persecuted than protected by their government.

After a year of court hearings, it remains unclear what series of events joined the fate of these 12 men. However, a fair trial is the inalienable right of all accused persons, regardless of race or religion, guilt or innocence. The trial I witnessed in Mandalay was a grave injustice.

fortify rights-logo@2x1This is a guest post written by Matthew Bugher and may not reflect the views of Fair Trials. Matthew Bugher is a lawyer and a consultant for Fortify Rights. You can follow him on Twitter @bughermk1. If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +44 (0) 7950 849 851. For regular updates follow Fair Trials on Twitter or sign up to our monthly bulletin at the bottom of the page.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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