Myanmar urged to drop charges against free-speech activist

Bangkok, Sep 2 (efe-epa).– Myanmar should immediately drop all charges against free-speech activist Maung Saungkha, seven global human rights groups said on Wednesday.

The prominent Myanmar poet is accused of staging an “unlawful protest” for putting up a banner against a year-long internet shutdown in the impoverished and troubled states of Rakhine and Chin.

Police in Yangon charged him on July 7 for demanding an end to the internet restrictions and a court verdict is expected on Sep 4.

Saungkha hung a banner reading, “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes and killing people,” from an overpass in downtown Yangon on June 21, marking the first anniversary of the curbs.

The charges slapped against him under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law carry up to three months in jail and a fine for unauthorized protests.

The international human rights groups demanding the withdrawal of the charges include Access Now, Amnesty International, Article 19, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Civil Rights Defenders, Fortify Rights, and Human Rights Watch.

“The charges against Maung Saungkha are just the latest example of the Myanmar government’s intolerance of critical speech and peaceful protest,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director at FORUM-ASIA.

“Instead of prosecuting those peacefully protesting the year-long internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States, the authorities should uphold free expression rights by ending the shutdown.”

The National League for Democracy-led government, which took office in April 2016, has increasingly restricted the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest, the groups said in the statement.

On July 27, a court sentenced two student leaders, Myat Hein Tun and Kyaw Lin, to one month each in Yangon’s Insein Prison for failing to give advance notice of a protest on February 23 in Kamaryut township in Yangon.

During the protest, the students demanded that the government immediately lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin and called for accountability of those responsible for the Myanmar military’s alleged shelling of a primary school in Buthidaung township in Rakhine State that had injured 21 students.

On March 25, the court sentenced seven students to one month in prison each with hard labor who for joining the protest.

“The mobile internet shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires any internet-based restrictions on communities to be necessary and proportionate,” the statement said.

Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme, at Article 19, urged the government to restore the full internet in Rakhine and Chin states.

“The lack of meaningful communications or information-sharing capabilities poses further threats to people trapped by fighting amid the Covid-19 pandemic.” EFE-EPA


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