Twelve men in Mandalay were convicted yesterday for having links to an alleged armed insurgent group – one that human rights workers claim may be entirely fictitious.
Defendents arrive at the Aung Myay Thar San township court yesterday. Photo Khin Su Wai / The Myanmar Times
The 12 defendants were given five-year sentences for receiving training from an organisation referred to as the "Myanmar Muslim Army". They were charged under section 5J of the Emergency Provisions Act, undermining the security of the union.
All 12, aged from 19 to 54, were arrested and detained between November 14 and December 26, 2014.
In a statement, activist group Fortify Rights accused the Aung Myay Thar San township court in Mandalay Region of staging an unfair trial and said the defendants were tortured into confessions.
"This is injustice. There was clearly no evidence to support this verdict," said Matthew Bugher, a consultant to Fortify Rights who has been monitoring the trial. "This sentence reveals the lack of justice, accountability and fair process in the current government and the court system."
Fortify said the prosecution refused to provide concrete evidence of the alleged armed network or how the men were associated with it, and instead repeatedly cited the Official Secrets Act.
One of the defendants, Ko Soe Moe Aung, 24, testified that he had been tortured while in police custody, according to his lawyer Daw Nandar Myint Thein. He said he was beaten while in detention, deprived of food and water, and given injections of an unknown substance before interrogations. He was then made to sign a confession.
Other defendants also claim to have undergone torture, but most were too scared to speak about it, fearing discrimination and reprisal.
"We heard that torture happened," said U Maung Gyi, a friend of one of the defendants who came from Yangon to hear the verdict yesterday.
"At first we tried to find someone to share our feelings," he said, adding that the more attention the case got the more families feared for the potential of discrimination. "After that we just tried to keep quiet."
After the guilty verdict was announced yesterday, the family members of the defendants who were gathered at the court began to cry.
"I want to die," Daw Khin Kyi, the 66-year-old mother of two defendants told The Myanmar Times. She said her older sons, who were arrested, supported the family of 11 children.
"My two sons were seized at Theingyi gate near Lashio," she said. "I don't know how I can stand this."
U Maung Maung, the brother of defendant U Nyi Nyi, told The Myanmar Times that two of his bothers have faced jail time in connection to supposed armed groups, charges he believes are completely ungrounded. One brother was charged in a separate case in Amapura township last month. Both brothers were religious teachers.
"My brothers are not guilty. They are very kind people," he said.
He said Ko Nyi Nyi was travelling with a youth group on a bus going from Mayawady to Mandalay when he and the group, including the driver, were arrested.
The existence of the "Myanmar Muslim Army" has not publicly been independently confirmed by security experts, and is only referred to with a single citation, a briefing by the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore which referred to "unconfirmed reports". According to the author of one such brief, the citation was based on "field research in Myanmar".
Some rights organisations have suggested the "Myanmar Muslim Army" may have been entirely fabricated.
"There is some truth in the claim that, since September 2001, the Rangoon regime has sought to use the rubric of the global war against terrorism to cloak a renewed campaign of discrimination against Burma's broad Muslim population," Andrew Selth, a professor specialising in Myanmar at Griffith University, wrote in an article about terrorism and Myanmar.
Fortify Rights said analysis of 170 pages of court documents did not provide any details about the supposed organisation.
"It is impossible to assess the government's claims regarding the Myanmar Muslim Army because the government has failed to provide any concrete evidence demonstrating its existence or details about its composition or activities," Mr Bugher said. "The government's case is so thin."
The President's Office could not be reached for comment yesterday and the prosecution declined to comment.
Family members of the convicted men yesterday said they are leaning against filing an appeal.
"Because of the changeover in government next year, some think they will only go to jail for three months," said the daughter of defendant U Hasan who declined to provide her name.