UPDATED at 10:40 a.m. EDT on 2019-06-21
Twenty-three villagers from Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state were brought to trial Thursday in Sittwe District Court on charges of violating the country’s counter-terrorism law.
The 23 were part of a group of 27 taken on April 10 from Letka village in Mrauk-U township, center of much of the fighting that has raged since January between the government army and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic army fighting for more autonomy for the Buddhist Rakhines in the western state. They were suspected of supporting the AA.
Three of the 27 died while in detention in Sittwe military compound, and the remaining detainees could face a sentence ranging from 10 years to life. One of the surviving 24 detainees is reportedly on the run.
Family members maintain that they have no connection with the AA. The villagers complained of being forced to make false confessions.
“After we were arrested, while we were being held in a monastery compound, the military tortured us in many ways until we admitted that we are AA members,” said Nyunt Maung, one of the villagers, to reporters at the site of the hearing.
“This is why we’re being accused as AA members, even though we are not. I would like to appeal to everyone to help us in any way that they can,” said Nyunt Maung.
Family members maintain that the accused villagers have no connection with the AA.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the military’s information committee told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview on Tuesday that the families of the accused villagers have the right to express their opinions freely outside the court but the truth will be revealed at the court hearing.
But the family members are quite concerned that the accused are not being treated fairly while in detention.
“The military tied up my son and kicked him many times on his body,” said Ma Tin Aye, 50, whose son Kyaw Than Naing is among the 23 on trial.
“They also slapped him on the ears repeatedly to the point that they were bleeding, and now he can’t hear clearly. I want him to take an X-ray so we can know the true extent of his injuries,” she said
Family members of the detainees said during a meeting with Rakhine’s state government on April 26 in Sittwe, the Minister for Security and Border Affairs Colonel Phone Tint and State Police Commander Kyi Lin promised that two of the 24 detainees at the time would be released. No releases have been confirmed.
“They didn’t keep their promise,” said Khin Shwe Than, mother of Soe Moe Kyaw, one of the two who was to be released. “They said earlier he would be released but he is still in detention. He is being tortured,” she added.
RFA contacted Commander Kyi Lin and other state police officials to ask why the two detainees were not released yet, but they didn’t answer, saying they were in a meeting.
Thein Ma Yay, wife of one of the detained villagers is holding onto hope that they will all be released.
“We are now living in a refugee camp. We want our husbands be released as soon as possible. They are totally innocent. Look at us. All the villagers are crying now. We are shedding tears since they are all innocent,” she said.
The next court hearing for the villagers is set for July 4.
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.