BANGKOK, May 14, 2004�In a highly unusual move, Burma's Supreme Court has overturned death sentences handed down last year to nine men convicted of treason, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.
The Supreme Court of Burma, in Rangoon, decided May 12 to reduce the sentences of five of the defendants from death to life in prison and to reduce the sentences of the remaining four to three years in prison, their lawyer, U Nay Oo Naing Ngwe Ya, told RFA�s Burmese service. Whether this would include time already served wasn't immediately clear, and the offices of the two judges who heard the case, Dr. Tin Aung Aye and U Tin Aye, couldn't be reached for comment.
The men were convicted Nov. 28, 2003, by a special tribunal inside the notorious In Sein Prison, of plotting against the ruling junta. They were sentenced to death under article 122-1 of the Burmese penal code. Lawyer U Nay Oo Naing Ngwe Ya filed a formal appeal on behalf of all nine defendants on April 6, 2004.
Among those whose sentences were reduced to three years is sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe, editor in chief of Burma's largest-selling sports magazine First Eleven . According to an appeal on his behalf by the advocacy group Reporters San Frontieres, Zaw Thet Htwe's arrest was apparently linked to publication of an article speculating about the spending of an international grant to promote football [soccer] in Burma. It also reported on a fine imposed by organizers of an Asian football [soccer] tournament on a Burmese football [soccer] team for failing to take part in the competition.
The others given three-year sentences are U Zaw Myo Htet, Naing Min Kyi, and U Aye Myint, the lawyer said. Those handed life sentences are Naing Yetkha, U Shwe Mann, U Zar Naing Htun, U Myo Htwe, and U Aung Lun.
�I am pleased that these death sentences were commuted,� the lawyer, U Nay Oo Naing Ngwe Ya, said. �For those who still were given life sentences, if I must say something, I would like to say in all sincerity that things could be different from a legal point of view.�
U Nay Oo Naing Ngwe Ya said he didn�t expect to file any further appeals in the case, since the special appellate court with relevant jurisdiction overturns only about one in every 1,000 cases. �So it might be difficult,� he said.
Zaw Thet Htwe�s wife, journalist Ma Khine Cho Zaw Win Tin, said she was �satisfied� with her husband�s reduced sentence. �I am satisfied with the decision,� she said in an interview. �I thank the lawyers and the judges who made the decision possible. I was very moved�when the lawyer called and told me about it.�
The verdicts are surprising because of close ties that exist between the ruling Burmese junta and the Burmese judiciary. In its latest annual report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department said: �The judiciary is not independent of the Government. The [ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council or SPDC,] appoints justices to the Supreme Court who, in turn, appoint lower court judges with the approval of the SPDC. These courts then adjudicate cases under decrees promulgated by the SPDC that effectively have the force of law. The court system includes courts at the township, district, state, and national levels.�
RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo, and Kham), and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance and fairness in its editorial content. For more information on Radio Free Asia, visit www.rfa.org #####