The ICJ today called on Myanmar authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of two journalists who have been detained incommunicado for nearly one week, and to grant prompt access to lawyers and families.
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have not been heard from since they were arrested by police in Yangon on Tuesday 12 December.
“Fair trial rights violations seriously undermine the rule of law in Myanmar. All detainees must be allowed prompt access to a lawyer and to family members,” said Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.
“Authorities are bound to respect these rights in line with Myanmar law and the State’s international law obligations,” he added.
The right to legal counsel is a bedrock rule of law principle that is set out in a range of international human rights laws and standards, including in article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Sean Bain, Legal Adviser for the ICJ, said that jurists should assess if the journalists’ detention conforms to applicable laws.
“Their situation appears to constitute arbitrary detention,” he said. “The judiciary should immediately review the lawfulness of detention and demand their release if it is indeed unlawful.”
“Judges and lawyers in Myanmar have an opportunity to assert their independence by challenging the unlawful actions of officials. Such blatant violations of fair trial rights should not go unanswered,” he added.
State media reports the journalists were charged under the 1923 Official Secrets Act in connection with their work investigating actions of security forces in Rakhine State.
More than 650,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, fled to Bangladesh as a result of military operations following attacks on police posts in August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Reuters has reported from both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh Border.
“The treatment of these reporters threatens freedom of expression. The harsh penalties they face sends a clear message to other journalists that they could face the same consequences for doing their job,” said Rawski.
In Myanmar, colonial-era laws were invoked to bring criminal charges against journalists in at least three jurisdictions in 2017.
Offences in these laws are often broadly defined, carry harsh penalties, and are open to abuse by authorities.
Journalists who received ten-year jail terms in 2014 under the Official Secrets Act were later released in a Presidential amnesty.
Amendments proposed at the time in parliament were rejected.
“The abuse of archaic laws like the Official Secrets Act must end. It is within the power of the National League for Democracy-dominated legislature to review these laws with a view to aligning them with the rights reflected in Myanmar’s constitution and in international law,” Rawski added.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director, t: +66 6 4478 1121 ; e: frederick.rawski(a)icj.org
Sean Bain, ICJ International Legal Adviser, e: sean.bain(a)icj.org
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers emphasize that, “Governments shall further ensure that all persons arrested or detained, with or without criminal charge, shall have prompt access to a lawyer, and in any case not later than 48 hours from the time of arrest or detention.”
Sections 19 and 375 of the Myanmar Constitution also guarantee the right of legal defense, as does Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure (section 340), Courts Manual (section 455(1)), the Police Manual (section 1198c) and the Prisons Act (section 40).
Sections 21(c) and 376 of the Constitution and section 61 of the Code of Criminal Procedure state that persons cannot be detained for more than 24 hours without a judge’s order.
The right to legal defense implies the right to access legal counsel during this 24-hour period.
Under section 403 of the Courts Manual, a detainee can be remanded only once he or she has appeared before a judge. It is unknown if the two Reuters journalists have appeared in court.
Competent judges are empowered to compel a search for a detainee if they have reason to believe the person is confined unlawfully, as per section 100 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Lawyers and family members may also request the courts to review the lawfulness of detention, by submitting a habeas corpus petition to the High Court and or to the Supreme Court.
The Tshwane Principles on National Security and the Right to Information, which address the right to access and to share information, as an aspect of freedom of expression in the context of national security, affirm that journalists “should not be prosecuted for receiving, possessing or disclosing classified information to the public, or for conspiracy or other crimes based on their seeking or accessing classified information.”
Myanmar-Reuters Journos-News-Press releases-2017-BUR (Story in Burmese, PDF)