International court condemns Burma junta for its illegal and “grotesque” record on detention
24 Mar 2009

Today sees the publication of one of the most important international law judgments in recent years. In a heavily argued case, decided last November but only now made public, the international legal system has ruled in the clearest possible terms that the military regime in Burma has contravened every last vestige of humanitarian law and falls to be condemned in the strongest possible way. Significantly, the tribunal rejected every single one of the Burmese Government’s arguments. The regime has been held to be operating entirely outside of the law and its violations of minimum standards of international law are described by the tribunal as “grotesque”.

The judgment has come in a case brought on behalf of four prisoners in Burmese jails. Their “crime” was to wear white clothes, to call for Buddhist prayers and to organise a letter-writing campaign to inform the generals of the plight of the people. Their fate as a result has been extreme torture, a year of detention without charge, lack of access to family and lawyers, eventual trial without representation (their lawyers were imprisoned for contempt for trying to represent them) and now sentences of hundreds of years of imprisonment for their supposed crimes. They are also representative of thousands of other prisoners wrongfully and inhumanely detained by the Burmese junta.

Their names are Min Ko Naing, Ko Jimmy, Min Zayar and Pyone Cho.
The case of these four men was taken up by the Burma Justice Committee and was argued by two English barristers (Sappho Dias and Adam Zellick instructed by Jared Genser of DLA Piper LLP (US)) before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Burmese Government defended the proceedings, arguing that the detentions of the four were legal and fully in accordance with Burmese law.

In an impressive judicial ruling, the jurists of the international tribunal founded under the auspices of the UN Charter have declared the Burmese Government’s position to be unarguable and improper as a matter of international law. The detentions of all four Petitioners have been held to be arbitrary and in contravention of a whole raft of provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whilst the Burmese military has so far ignored the outcome and continues illegally to imprison all four Petitioners contrary to international law and in contempt of the judgment of the tribunal, the ruling is almost unprecedented in its force and signifies that the Burmese dictatorship’s conduct cannot be tolerated in international law any longer. Experts believe that International Criminal Court indictments against the ruling Generals and global sanctions against the regime are many steps closer today in light of the judgment handed down.

Sappho Dias, Chairman of the Burma Justice Committee, said:

“The BJC calls on Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, to press for the release of all political prisoners in Burma. The international community has a responsibility to those being persecuted in Burma, and we must act now to end the injustice that is being perpetrated against the Burmese people.”

Tim Dutton QC, immediate past Chairman of the Bar and a leading member of the BJC, said:

“The Burma Justice Committee is pleased that the UN Working Group has reached its conclusion in this case. The Petitioners’ case was overwhelming, although that did not stop the dictatorship from attempting to defend their actions. But the Petitioners remain incarcerated. The junta lost the case and the tribunal has ruled, but the ruling is being flouted. These four men must be released immediately.

“More generally, the judgment is yet further evidence against the brutal military dictatorship, which, as part of its regime of repressing its citizens, illegally detains thousands of people, and subjects them to degrading and inhumane punishment.

“We support the call for the release of these four men. We also call for the release of all those unlawfully detained by this regime. The junta is guilty of wholesale breaches of human rights, and the continued oppression of those working to bring democracy and the rule of law to Burma will not be tolerated. Those who support the illegal activities of this regime must expect, whether they be generals or gaolers, that they will be brought before courts and tribunals and held responsible.”

– Ends –

Note for Editors

(A) The Burma Justice Committee was established by lawyers in order to provide advice and assistance to those who are affected by the unlawful conduct of the Burmese Military Dictatorship. It is chaired by Sappho Dias (a barrister) who is of Burmese origin and the Vice Chair is Adam Zellick, also a barrister who has acted in a number of international human rights cases, and is the author of a book on habeas corpus. Amongst its members are barristers and solicitors with expertise in (amongst others) War Crimes, Human Rights, International Law, International Trade and Sanctions, Criminal Law. It counts amongst its members and supporters the current and immediate past Chairmen of the Bar Council and many other distinguished lawyers and jurists.

(B) Burma : The Petitioners in Brief.

NB These notes on the Petitioners lives were included in the materials for the case put before the UN Group on Arbitrary Detention, and were released in November 2007 when the Petitions were lodged. They record information known to the Burma Justice Committee as at that date.
1. Htay Win Aung (alias Pyone Cho).
The alias Pyone Cho in Burmese means Sweet Smile. He was a Joint General Secretary of the Rangoon Division Students Union in the period 1988 to 1989. He was first arrested following the post 1988 crackdown in July 1989 alongside Tint Sann. The Military Junta accused them of anti-government activities although Htay Win Aung was not brought to face trial until 1991 (2 years after arrest). The so-called trial was before a military tribunal which did not permit Htay Win Aung to be legally represented. Nor were his relatives allowed to attend the trial. A sentence of 7 years imprisoment was imposed on him. This 7 year sentence was extended to 14 years as Htay Win Aung sent to the UN a statement about the conditions existing in the notorious Myingyan Prioson. He was released for the first time in 2005. On release he was suffering from malnutrition as well as cataracts, which made him blind. He was re-arrested for a second time on 30th September 2006 being released (for the second time) on 11th January 2007. Following the recent protests by the monks against the Military Junta, Htay Win Aung was re-arrested on 22nd August 2007.

1. Kyaw Min Yu (alias Ko Jimmy).
Kyaw Min Yu was a student in his third year studying Physics at Rangoon University when he was first arrested in 1989. He was tried and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. This sentence was increased by a further 12 years when he contacted the UN Human Rights Commission. Ge was released in 2005. He is married and his wife is currently in hiding from the Military Junta. Nilar Thein AND Kyaw Min Yu have a daughter, now aged 4 months, who is now living without her father or her mother. Kyaw Min Yu was re-arrested following the prodemocracy protest by the monks on 22nd August 2007. There have been repeated rumours of his death in Burma but U Myint Tein, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy believes these are false rumours generated by the Military Junta to flush his wife out of hiding.

1. Min Ko Naing. (Formal name: Paw Oo Tun).
Min Ko Naing is an alias meaning the Conqueror of Kings in Burmese. Min Ko Naing is one of the prominent figureheads in the struggle for democracy. In 1988, he was the Chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. He was in his third year at Rangoon Arts and Science University reading Zoology. Min Ko Naing is regarded as the most charismatic of the student leaders to have emerged from the 88 Generation. He is described as kind, generous, flexible and broad-minded. It is also said of him that he has a sense of humour which has sustained him through the long years of solitary imprisonment. He was first arrested on 23rd March 1989 and subsequently sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. During his first spell in prison, Min Ko Naing was visited by the then-US Congressman Bill Richardson who offered him freedom on the basis of an agreement to be deported to the United States. Min Ko Naing refused this offer. He was subsequently released for the first time on 19th November 2004. However, on 27th September 2006, he was arrested a second time and was not released until 11th January 2007. Although his name his not well known outside Burma, his is a name which has charismatic power in Burma. He was arrested after the recent prodemocracy protests by the monks on 22nd August 2007. He is the recipient of human rights awards from Canada, the Czech Republic, Norway, Italy and United States.

1. Min Zayar. (Formal Name: Aung Myin, Aung Par).
Min Zayar is an alias meaning the Teacher of Kings in Burmese. Min Zayar at 49, in the oldest of the detainees. In 1988, he was in his fifth year at Rangoon University reading Law and was a Committee member of the now banned All Burma Students Union. Throughout 1988, he was repeatedly arrested and held in prison for short spells. There were 3 such arrests in 1988. On 25th August 1989, he was arrested for a fourth time and sentenced to 8 years imprisonment. He was released in October 1995 but since that date has been repeatedly re-arrested and imprisoned for varying lengths of time. He was last released on 11th January 2007. However, following the recent pro-democracy protests he was rearrested on 21st August 2007.
There are fears that all of the detainees are being tortured and mistreated.
For more information, or a copy of Opinion No. 46/2008, please call Camilla Barker on +44 (0)207 067 0330

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