The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) joins in the international condemnation of the executions of four pro-democracy activists in Myanmar following grossly unfair trials contrary to international human rights law.
According to information released by Myanmar state media early Monday morning on 25 July, four executions of pro-democracy activists were carried out over the weekend. The four men executed were connected with the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and their convictions, following closed-door military trials, are largely believed to have been politically motivated.
Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former member of Parliament from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, and Kyaw Min Yu (also known as Ko Jimmy), a prominent pro-democracy activist, were both convicted and sentenced to death following their trial by military tribunals in January this year pursuant to Myanmar’s Counterterrorism law. The junta had accused both men of coordinating a number of attacks on junta forces in 2021, a claim that has largely been disputed by local sources. Two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were both convicted of the alleged murder of a woman believed to have been a military informant in Yangon. Their guilt was also contested.
The trials of the four pro-democracy activists fell far short of international human rights law and standards. Throughout the proceedings, the defendants were held in incommunicado detention, were not permitted to examine evidence used against them, and were denied the right to legal counsel.
“Trying civilians in closed-door proceedings before military tribunals is in all cases a violation of the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal”, said Mandira Sharma, Senior International Legal Advisor at the ICJ.
It is not known who upheld the convictions on appeal in June this year or what took place during these appeal proceedings. For this reason alone, these appeals too, clearly, fell far short of international human rights law and standards relating to the right to appeal.
Neither the trial nor the appeal proceedings can credibly be said to have guaranteed the defendants all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, including to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal and to adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and by the 1984 ECOSOC Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty.
“Imposing the death sentence in such circumstances is clearly arbitrary. The executions of the four pro-democracy activists following their grossly unfair trials were clearly contrary to international human rights law and standards and constituted arbitrary deprivations of life in violation of their right to life; they were the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” Mandira Sharma added.
The four executions were the first time capital punishment was carried out in Myanmar since the 1980s. As such, they indicate how far the junta is willing to go to silence political opponents and rule through fear. An estimated 117 people have been sentenced to death, including two children, since the military coup in 2021. It is expected that the junta will continue to use executions to intimidate political opponents and ensure the silencing of any dissent.
While the death sentences of the four pro-democracy activists were upheld on appeal in June this year, no date had been set for their executions as late as last week, and nothing had indicated their imminence to the families or had transpired in the local and international media. Instead, the executions were carried out unexpectedly under a shroud of secrecy, most likely to shield the junta from increased pressure to stay the executions. Local reports indicate that some family members were able to speak with the detainees via video link on Friday, but were not given a date for the executions. Later, prison guards confirmed to some family members that the executions had been carried out. According to local media sources, the bodies of the four have not been released to the families, contrary to Myanmar’s prison regulations, nor have they been able to see the bodies of their loved ones.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, condemned the sentences as a blatant violation of the right to life, liberty and the security of person. He later “expressed concern at the military’s decision to go ahead with executions and reiterated his calls for the respect of people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, has also condemned the executions and called for the release of all political prisoners in Myanmar.
Local activists are now expressing shock and outrage following the executions, and Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) has condemned the executions while calling for international action against the junta. In addition, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz, have called for increased action, linking the executions to a broader pattern in Myanmar, urging that “the widespread and systematic murders or protesters, indiscriminate attacks against entire villages, and now the execution of opposition leaders, demands an immediate and firm response by member states of the United Nations. The status quo of international inaction must be firmly rejected.”
The ICJ opposes capital punishment in all cases without exception as a violation of the right to life and to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
International human rights law is clear that the death penalty may only be imposed, let alone carried out, except for “the most serious crimes, and then only in the most exceptional cases and under the strictest limits” and “in a non-arbitrary manner.” The UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment 36 confirmed that, “deprivation of life is, as a rule, arbitrary if it is inconsistent with international law or domestic law,” and that “the execution of sentenced persons whose guilt has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt also constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of life.”
The ICJ also notes with concern that the reported method used to execute the four men was hanging, which the UN Human Rights Committee has suggested violates the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as does failure to provide individuals on death row with timely notification about the date of their execution.
Considering these various failings, the ICJ calls on authorities of Myanmar to:
- commute any further death sentences;
- cease harassment of political opponents through legal proceedings;
- cease trials of civilians before military tribunals; and
- ensure the right to a fair trial as guaranteed under international human rights law and standards.
The ICJ also urgently calls on the international community to work to prevent further miscarriages of justice in Myanmar via use of the death penalty. In particular, the ICJ calls on the UN Human Rights Council and ASEAN to step up efforts to prevent repetition of these events in the future.
Mandira Sharma, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Raquel Saavedra, ICJ International Legal Adviser on Myanmar, email: email@example.comPress releases