Myanmar Court Grants Bail to Former Student Activist Charged With Defamation

2017-08-15
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Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of lower Myanmar's Yangon region, speaks at a press conference in an undated photo.
Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of lower Myanmar's Yangon region, speaks at a press conference in an undated photo.
RFA

A judge in south-central Myanmar’s Bago region granted bail on Tuesday to a former student activist charged with defamation by the country’s powerful military, his attorney said.

Aung Htet was released on bail by the Taungoo township court because of injuries he sustained in prison, Robert San Aung said, though he did not mention the amount of bail paid.

Another prisoner at the township jail hit Aung Htet with a stone, the lawyer said, blaming the attack on lax supervision by guards and accusing prison officials of orchestrating the incident by placing rocks in the jail cell to facilitate the attack.

“Nyi Nyi Naing who is a deserter and is in prison for robbery hit Aung Htet with a stone,” he said. “He’s got several injuries on his head.

“He showed up at court for the hearing, and the judge checked his wound and accepted his doctor’s recommendation to grant him bail,” he said.

A lieutenant colonel in the military’s Southern Command filed a lawsuit on Aug. 1 against Aung Htet and a man named Victor, both former members of the Student Union of Taungoo, accusing them of inciting unrest, according to the online journal The Irrawaddy.

At the time, authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Victor, who was traveling but was expected to turn himself in to the police when he returned to Taungoo, The Irrawaddy said.

Victor still remains at large, however.

Aung Htet and Victor, who are also leaders of a music ensemble called the Kaytu Oh-Way Thangyat Group, were charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code for defaming the military in a song they composed and sang during the Thingyan water festival in Taungoo in April.

The song called for changes to the country’s 2008 constitution which was drafted by a military junta.

The provision sets a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both for those who make, publish, or circulate a statement, rumor, or report with the intent to cause fear or alarm in the public whereby someone may be induced commit “an offence against the state” or “disrupt public tranquility.”

The provision usually does not allow for bail to be granted.

The date of Aung Htet’s next trial is unknown.

Defamation complaint against Reuters

In a related development, Yangon region’s Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein on Monday filed an official complaint against Reuters news agency, accusing it of defamation.

He cited an article Reuters published on Aug. 6 with the headline “Suu Kyi’s Man in Yangon Under Fire Over Transit Deal With China” that questioned the transparency of the Yangon regional government’s deals to import buses from China.

Phyo Min Thein also asked the Myanmar Press Council to “take action” against Reuters’ local bureau because he says the story “wrongly accused” him of malfeasance in the public transportation deals, said the council’s vice chairman Aung Hla Tun.

“We have to ask the chief minister what he wants, and which facts have offended him,” he said. He wants to take action against Reuters, but what kind of action does he want? Does he want [Reuters] to make a correction if something is wrong? … We have to go over this step by step.”

Phyo Min Thein told the council that the article was factually incorrect and that Reuters failed to verify the information in it with him, though the news agency said it in the report that the chief minister had declined several requests for interviews, The Irrawaddy reported, citing Aung Hla Tun as its source.

The complaint is the second one that Phyo Min Thein has filed against a news outlet.

In November 2016, he filed a case against Htut Aung, chief executive officer of Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven newspaper, because of an editorial they published accusing him of receiving a U.S. $100,000 watch from an unnamed drug tycoon who was later awarded a lucrative contract for a city transit project.

The editorial appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of Daily Eleven and was posted on Than Htut Aung’s Facebook page, and the two men were charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law.

The article prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for those who violate it.

Journalists and rights groups charge that those in power have been increasingly using repressive laws such as Section 505(b) of the Penal Code and Article 66(d) to silence their critics.

Some rights groups believe that Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader who is widely touted as a democracy icon in the West, has failed to live up to expectations for increased freedom of the press under the current National League for Democracy government, which has been in power for nearly 17  months.

By Thiri Min Zin and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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