Thursday, June 11, 2009

Being a Defense Lawyer in Burma Is a Risky Business

The Irrawaddy News

As the trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi unfolds, many people are asking: How difficult is it to be a defense lawyer who represents political activists in Burma?

Defense lawyers who represent political dissidents routinely face government intimidation, in some cases leading to prison terms and the suspension or cancellation of their license to practice by the Burmese Bar Council.

Eleven lawyers who defended pro-democracy activists are currently serving prison terms across the country.

The Thailand-based human rights group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said at least 207 Burmese lawyers, including central high court lawyers, have faced suspension, warnings, temporary suspension or dismissal of their license without a proper hearing process.

“If you want to be a defense lawyer for political activists, you can have your lawyer license cancelled at any time,” said Nyi Nyi Hlaing, who has represented political activists.

“Sometimes judges intimidate us by saying if we upset the judicial process, we can be punished,” he said.

Prominent defense lawyer Aung Thein, who recently served a four months prison sentence for contempt of court and had his license cancelled, told The Irrawaddy: “There are two kinds of lawyers who have had their license dismissed. Political activist lawyers who are dismissed for their political activities and lawyers dismissed in the process of defending their activist clients.

Aung Thein’s colleague, Khin Maung Shein, who has represented political activists including Aung San Suu Kyi, was also dismissed from practicing law and sentenced to four months in prison.

“The fact that the Burmese Bar Council cancelled our licenses is not fair, because we served four months detention in payment for what they called contempt of court,” said Aung Thein.

Late last year, attorney Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min was convicted of contempt of court after complaining of unfair treatment by a Rangoon court in a case involving political dissidents.

“I was intimidated by the judge from Kyimyindine Township court when I asked to call a government witness to the court to testify,” said Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, 29. “She told me you don’t have a right to call the government witness. If you do that, your lawyer license will be cancelled.

In addition, attorneys Nyi Nyi Htway and Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min were both sentenced to six months imprisonment for contempt of court while representing activists. Saw Kyaw Kyaw fled to Thailand rather than serve time in prison.

The convictions were politically motivated to intimidate other lawyers from defending political dissidents, said observers of the legal system.

Like activist lawyers, average citizens who are caught up in politically sensitive issues are frequently intimidated or charged with criminal acts by the military government. Various professions, including comedians, doctors, private teachers, singers, writers, journalists and their family members, have been charged and imprisoned because of their political involvement.

On June 9, Khin Khin Aye, a senior manager in the Central Cooperative Society under the Ministry of Cooperative, was dismissed from her job without warning because her husband, attorney Hla Myo Myint, had represented Aung San Suu Kyi.

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