Rights group says Myanmar’s military rulers have cracked down on lawyers, abused legal system

BANGKOK (AP) — Lawyers representing critics of Myanmar’s military government face harassment and attacks ranging from threats and arrests to unfair trials and even torture, a human rights organization charged Thursday, saying such actions reflect a broader assault on the country’s justice system.

Human Rights Watch also accused the country’s military authorities of imposing systematic obstacles and restrictions on lawyers to prevent them from taking the cases of political detainees.

“Myanmar’s already tenuous justice system has declined drastically, failing to uphold basic due process rights,” the group said in a statement marking the release of a 39-page report, “‘Our Numbers are Dwindling’: Myanmar’s Post-Coup Crackdown on Lawyers.”

The report cites the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group which keeps detailed records of arrests and casualties perpetrated by the authorities, as tallying at least 32 lawyers who are in pretrial detention or serving sentences on various charges.

Most of the detained lawyers were charged under laws covering terrorism, unlawful association, possession of explosives and incitement, a political offense covering a broad range of activities deemed to cause public unrest, the New York-based rights group said. The tally and details given about the detained lawyers could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press.

“At every turn, Myanmar’s lawyers have faced systematic, junta-imposed obstacles and restrictions impeding their work,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The military authorities should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained and stop harassing lawyers.”

Myanmar is wracked by violence that began after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and brutally suppressed nonviolent protests, triggering armed resistance that has led to armed conflict over most of the country.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, authorities have killed at least 3,630 civilians and arrested 23,283 people since the army takeover.

The military has assumed all government functions, giving the head of the ruling military council, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, legislative, judicial and executive powers. Under army rule, the judicial system has become significantly less transparent.

Human Rights Watch said the military created “special courts,” closed courts that violate fair trial rights, to fast-track politically sensitive cases. Normally, these court sessions are closed to reporters and the public. The authorities have imposed numerous severe restrictions on lawyers, including prohibitions on private communications with clients before hearings in such courts, the report said.

One lawyer based in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, told the group last October that they were under heavy surveillance and barred from asking witnesses certain questions during court hearings.

All 19 lawyers interviewed for the report experienced intimidation and surveillance by the military authorities, the group said. For their protection, Human Rights Watch did not disclose their names.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who is serving prison sentences totaling 33 years after being found guilty in a series of politically driven prosecutions brought by the military, was tried by a special court.

Her lawyers were placed under gag orders in October 2021, barring them from talking about her cases. They have not been allowed to meet with Suu Kyi to receive her instructions for appeal cases since her conviction last December.

A lawyer told the group that one of his colleagues was tortured in an interrogation center. Another said he was blindfolded and forced to kneel down with his hands tied behind his back for hours every time he was interrogated at an interrogation center, Human Rights Watch said.

Several others reported ill treatment or torture of detained colleagues, including Tin Win Aung, a senior lawyer who defended political prisoners in Mandalay, the second largest city.

A lawyer said Tin Win Aung suffered a broken arm and leg and had to have a feeding tube inserted into his stomach after beatings by security forces during pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said.

“His legs were stretched and cuffed in a wooden shackle. Then they would roll a heavy stick across his tibia, then they stand on his legs, so his tibia bones were fractured. They kicked his chest and back,” the report quoted the lawyer as saying. “There were also injuries like being cut with knives. His leg bones were mostly fractured. From the impact of kicks into his chest and back, his lungs were damaged too.”

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