Reform of the 1959 Defence Services Act is a necessary step to address ongoing military impunity. The case of Ko Par Gyi’s killing should be reopened to satisfy the State’s international law obligations and deter repetition of serious crimes by soldiers.
Five years after the death of journalist Ko Par Gyi, the ICJ calls on the Government of Myanmar to reform the 1959 Defence Services Act, which was used to shield soldiers from accountability for involvement in his killing.
“The case is emblematic of the 1959 Defence Services Act being used to enable impunity for human rights violations by soldiers throughout Myanmar, by transferring to military courts the authority to investigate and prosecute serious crimes against civilians,” said Frederick Rawski, Asia Pacific Region Director for the ICJ.
“Impunity for Ko Par Gyi’s death is another example of this law being used to shield soldiers from accountability for serious crimes,” added Rawski. “Legislators should reform the 1959 law to enable the public criminal prosecution of soldiers for serious crimes in all circumstances, and take other steps to address the accountability gap.”
After being detained by police in Mon State and transferred into military detention on 30 September 2014, Ko Par Gyi died four days later in the custody of Tatmadaw soldiers. Unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave, Ko Par Gyi’s death was hidden from his family and the public for weeks. Nobody has been held accountable for his death and his family lacks access to redress, including their right to know the truth.
A deeply flawed inquiry carried out secretly in military courts, pursuant to the 1959 Act, resulted in the acquittal of the soldiers allegedly involved. This effectively ended other efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable, including through an inquest at the Kyaikmaraw Township Court in Mon State. It also flouted the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission’s recommendation for a police investigation and public criminal trial to be undertaken by civilian authorities.
“Five years on, Myanmar authorities must finally initiate a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the killing of journalist Ko Par Gyi,” said Sean Bain, legal adviser for the ICJ. “The truth must be established and recognized, and those responsible for his apparently unlawful killing need to be brought to justice in fair trials,” he added.
Several provisions of the 1959 Act are used to facilitate a transfer of cases involving military personnel from civilian to military courts, including for serious crimes against civilians. This has been used as a tool to avoid accountability in cases throughout Myanmar, such as its use to justify the early release of soldiers who were convicted by a military court in the killing of ten Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State in 2017.
International legal standards prohibit the use of military courts to try military personnel for gross human rights violations and crimes under international law. The detention and prosecution of journalists, based solely on their lawful activities undertaken while doing their job, violates the right to freedom of expression, and the rights to seek, receive and impart information and to participate in public affairs.
Myanmar authorities have an obligation to reopen the case of Ko Par Gyi with a view to establishing the circumstances of his death, as with any potentially unlawful killing by either State or non-State actors.
“By empowering civilian courts to oversee such cases, the NLD Government would send a powerful message to all justice sector institutions, including police, prosecutors and judges, that they can and should review potential crimes involving the military with independence and impartiality, in line with the rule of law,” added Bain.
The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government has the legislative authority to immediately reform the 1959 Act to align it with international standards. The ICJ has called for reform of this law, including by allowing the prosecution of soldiers for serious crimes to be undertaken under the jurisdiction of civilian courts.
ICJ, “The investigation and prosecution of potentially unlawful death: ICJ Practitioners’ Guide no. 14,” 14 September 2019, available here.
ICJ, “Achieving Justice for Gross Human Rights Violations in Myanmar – a baseline study,” 16 January 2018, available here.
Sean Bain, ICJ legal adviser, e: sean.bain(a)icj.org
Full statement with additional information, in English: Myanmar-Ko Par Gyi killing-Press-Releases-2019-ENG (PDF)
Full statement, in Burmese: Myanmar-Ko Par Gyi killing-Press-Releases-2019-BUR (PDF)AdvocacyNews