RVISION March 14, 2015

THE GOVERNMENT of Myanmar (Burma) should immediately and unconditionally release a group of five Rohingya prisoners of conscience being held in Akyab (Sittwe) prison, Arakan (Rakhine) State, Fortify Rights said today.

The group includes three prominent Rohingya community leaders imprisoned earlier this week.Criminal charges against the individuals stem from tensions in Rakhine State in April 2013 when government officials attempted to force Rohingya to identify as ”Bengali,” a term implying they are natives of Bangladesh rather than Myanmar.

Local residents protested, chanting ”Rohingya! Rohingya!,” and violence ensued, leading the government to suspend its controversial ”citizenship scrutiny” exercise. Shortly thereafter, the state filed trumped-up charges against Rohingya community leaders and others.

”The authorities are sending a clear message to Rohingya that any form of resistance will be met with reprisals,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.

”This is a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine the community’s social and political structures. It’s a textbook example of persecution.”

On February 27, the Akyab (Sittwe) Appellate Court sentenced three of the men – Ba Tha, 63; Kyaw Myint, 61; and Hla Myint, 31 – to eight years in prison.

On March 8, the authorities transferred the group from their homes near an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp to the Akyab (Sittwe) police station and later to Akyab  Prison.

Two others – Solemon Begum, 50, female, and Mohamed Hashim, 22, male – have been imprisoned in Akyab (Sittwe) Prison since June 2013, and on February 27, the court added an additional five years to the three-and-a-half year sentence they are currently serving.

The Court also sentenced a sixth Rohingya community leader, Kyaw Khin, 45, male, to five years in prison on February 27. He is currently in hiding.

The charges against the Rohingya community leaders relate to sections 147 (rioting), 333 (injuring a public servant), and 395 (armed robbery by a gang) of the Myanmar Penal Code.

Fortify Rights met with Kyaw Myint and Hla Myint in an IDP camp in Arakan (Rakhine )State on March 7, the day before the court remanded them to Akyab (Sittwe ) prison.

They told Fortify Rights that the authorities accused them of organising the Muslim population in Arakan (Rakhine) State to self-identify as Rohingya – an allegation they deny.

”The government thinks that if we’re free, we’ll advise the people to call themselves Rohingya, so they want to lock us up,” said Hla Myint, who has been involved in humanitarian relief for displaced Rohingya.

”We have people who are dying, and we are just trying to help them.”

District Court Judge Aye Thein, an ethnic Burman, heard the initial charges against the six Rohingya on June 2013 in ”criminal regular trial #36/2013.” On June 24, 2014, she acquitted and freed Kyaw Myint, Hla Myint, Ba Tha, and Kyaw Khin.

On the same day, Judge Aye Thein convicted and sentenced Solemon Begum and Mohamed Hashim to three-and-a-half years in prison. Arakan (Rakhine ) State Attorney General Oo Hla Thein later appealed the acquittal, and Judge Thein Aung, an ethnic Rakhine, oversaw the trial in ”criminal appellate case #69/2014.” The appellate court in Akyab( Sittwe) heard arguments on January 4, 2015, forcefully accused them all guilty, and sentenced them on February 27.

The group intends to appeal their convictions at the Supreme Court in Naypyidaw.

Hla Myo Myint, an ethnic Burman human rights lawyer with decades of legal experience in Myanmar, represents these prisoners of conscience. He told Fortify Rights that local ”extremists” previously threatened him in Akyab (Sittwe)  for representing  Rohingya clients and that plain-clothed persons on motorbikes often follow him when he is in theArakan ( Rakhine) State capital.

Rohingya, and particularly Rohingya community and political leaders, are subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and harassment in Myanmar.

Prisoners of conscience in Myanmar remain at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment and are subject to conditions in detention that fall short of international standards, as articulated by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Myanmar lacks an independent judiciary and trials throughout the country often fail to meet international standards.

The right to a fair trial is a human right recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and legally binding on all states as part of customary international law.

Ahead of the elections scheduled to take place later this year, Arakan( Rakhine) State authorities are preparing to confiscate ”white cards” – identification cards that do not provide any legal status but enabled Rohingya to vote in the 2010 elections.

This follows a February 11 statement from President Thein Sein’s office declaring that white cards will expire on March 31, effectively revoking voting rights of white-card holders. Some displaced Rohingya told Fortify Rights they believe authorities deliberately timed the imprisonment of their community leaders ahead of the revocation of white cards.

Since 2013, Fortify Rights interviewed Rohingya from Arakan (Rakhine) State who said Myanmar authorities dragged family members away in recent years.

Fortify Rights believes there are potentially scores of Rohingya prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, particularly in northern Arakan (Rakhine) State.

Fortify Rights calls on the government of Myanmar to release all remaining prisoners of conscience in the country, including Rohingya.

Fortify Rights also calls on the international community to respect and protect human rights in Myanmar, including the right of Rohingya to self identify.

”Some want to believe the situation in Arakan (Rakhine) State has stabilised, but in reality it has been a steady downward spiral of abuse,” said Matthew Smith.

”The government has pitched its ethnic re-classification efforts to the international community as a pragmatic solution. It’s important we all see it for what it is – a strategy to eradicate the Rohingya identity.”

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