Thursday, February 19, 2009

Junta Declares War on Lawyers

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT — To be a lawyer in military-ruled Burma is to court danger, invite arrest and risk being jailed in the country’s notorious prisons.

It is the price to be paid for what, in most countries, would be standard practice for the legal profession: defending a person facing a trial for an alleged crime that he or she has been charged with.

But the ongoing targeting of lawyers reveals that life marches to a different tune in the South-east Asian country that has been under the oppressive grip of a military dictatorship for the past 47 years.

More so if the legal battles involve the countries pro-democracy activists who dare to stand up, speak out and be counted among the eternally harassed opposition. More so if the ones facing charges in what are largely political trials have links to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the largest opposition party.

Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min is among the fortunate, though. The soft-spoken, slightly-built lawyer gave the authorities the slip in Rangoon, the former capital, and fled to Mae Sot in December to relate disturbing accounts of the new pressure on his profession.

"It is difficult for pro-democracy activists to get a fair trial in Burma," said the 29-year-old during a late-night interview in the Thai town near the Burmese border that has become home to many political activists who have fled oppression back home. "I did not have rights to talk with the political prisoners in private to prepare for their cases."

"There were times when a request to meet my clients was denied," added Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, whose legal practice has largely been dedicated to helping political activist from the NLD arrested for protesting against the junta. "There were always men from military intelligence and the special branch monitoring the discussions I was having with my clients."

What prompted his flight to Thailand was when a judge hearing a case where Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min was appearing charged him and his colleague for coming to the defence of three clients during a trial in October last year. "Our clients protested in court by turning their backs and saying that they didn’t trust the trial process," he revealed.

Not so lucky was his colleague, Nyi Nyi Htwe. The latter was arrested at a teashop on Oct. 29 and is currently serving a six months jail term. The same sentence was handed down to Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min in absentia.

Since then, three other lawyers appearing for pro-democracy activists have been jailed. In early February, the authorities issued arrest warrants for six lawyers who have been defending political activists.

And if not that, the junta has pursued an alternative route to bar opposition figures from securing legal aid during their political trials. The outcome of a case that ended in mid-February is typical: the lawyers chosen to assist two elected parliamentarians were barred from attending court proceedings until their clients were sentenced to 15 years in jail.

"There is no rule of law in Burma," says Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who heads the Assistant Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a human rights group based in this town. "There is no separation of powers, no independence of the judiciary."

"It is getting more difficult for lawyers to defend political activists," he revealed. "The lawyers who appear for the activists are very brave. They don’t get much money and they know that their practice will suffer."

And the need for such lawyers with courage could not have been greater, he explained, in the wake of the on-going crackdown of all dissenting voices and the harsh jail terms handed down to leading, respected political activists.

In November last year, the courts handed down verdicts for 215 political activists who were linked to the pro-democracy street protests, led by thousands of Buddhists monks, held in September 2007.

A 21-year-old student was given a 104-year-sentence, a Buddhist monk who led the protests was given a 68-year-jail term, and leading female dissident was imprisoned for 65 years.

The junta’s aggressive use of the courts to target all political dissidents became clear in late 2003, following a 106-year-sentence handed down to a leading member of the Shan ethnic community, says Aung Htoo, general secretary of the Burma Lawyers’ Council. "Since that time the regime started using the judiciary as a tool of oppression."

"This is the worst period for the non-independence of the judiciary," he added. "We are seeing outrageous rulings. The situation was bad before, but not this bad."

And the judgments delivered after the political trials do not emerge from the court proceedings either. "The Home Ministry instructs the judges and the prosecutors about the verdict they want," says U Myo, a former state prosecutor who fled Burma for Thailand. "They have to follow the orders."

Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min witnessed such travesty since he graduated in 2005 with a law degree from Burma’s Dagon University and began his practice.

"Once the trial starts, the judge, the prosecuting lawyers, the prosecuting officers, and the prosecution’s witnesses follow the (junta’s) instructions," the lawyer noted in a statement released soon after he arrived in Mae Sot.

Abuse is rampant during the trial, too, he added. "Questions asked in court by the defence lawyers are deemed inadmissible by the judge, and so are not officially recorded in the court transcript."

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