Five ethnic Rakhine men who were filmed being beaten by Myanmar military soldiers on a naval vessel in late April have been charged under the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law for having suspected ties to an ethnic armed group, their lawyer said Wednesday.
The men were arrested by government forces on suspicion of having links to the Arakan Army (AA), a mostly ethnic Rakhine group fighting government army for greater autonomy in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The Myanmar government in March declared the AA an unlawful and terrorist organization.
“They were charged on May 22 under Counter-Terrorism Law sections 55(j) and 52(a) at the Second District Court in Sittwe,” said Kyaw Nyunt Maung, an attorney from the Legal Aid Group who is defending the men. “I submitted my power of attorney to act on their behalf the same day.”
The Myanmar military also announced that seven others deemed fugitives are linked to the case, he said.
Myanmar military Major Tint Naing Tun filed the charges against Myo Lin Oo, Nyi Nyi Aung, Htay Win, Kyaw Win Aye, and Min Soe, who face a maximum penalty of life in prison if found guilty, Kyaw Nyunt Maung said.
The five men were among a group of 38 civilians detained days after Myanmar forces shelled Kyauk Seik village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township on April 13, killing eight civilians and injured more than a dozen others.
Myanmar soldiers later released the other detainees.
The plight of the five men came to light when a cellphone video showing soldiers on board the naval vessel punching and kicking them was posted on social media on May10 and went viral.
Family members of the men told RFA in an earlier report that those arrested had been forced to confess to being AA fighters, though the relatives and friends denied that this was the case.
Following their court hearing, the five men were taken to Sittwe Prison where they are being held during the court proceedings, Kyaw Nyunt Maung said. Their next hearing is scheduled for June 6.
Earlier this month, Myanmar’s military admitted that the soldiers used unlawful and improper interrogation techniques while detaining the five Rakhine men as they were being transported by boat to Sittwe.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said at a press conference on May 22 that the country's defense forces chief ordered an investigation into the alleged abuse.
He also said that the military takes legal action against soldiers found guilty of torturing civilians during questioning.
RFA was unable to reach Zaw Min Tun on Wednesday for an update.
“If they asked us about whether we are pleased because these soldiers will be charged under military law, then there is no reason to be pleased because the villagers have already been hurt,” said Soe Thein Maung, the uncle of Nyi Nyi Aung, one of the five men charged.
“We need laws and people who can prevent this kind of case,” he added.” It's not good to take action against people after [abuse] occurs.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the charges illustrate the shortcomings of the country’s judiciary.
“The villagers who were abused and terrorized have been charged under the Counter-Terrorism [Law]. It shows how much Myanmar’s judicial system has been ruined,” he said.
Myanmar soldiers often detain and question civilians suspected of having ties to the AA. More and more villagers caught in conflict zones in western Myanmar are now being charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law following the government’s declaration of the AA a terrorist group.
Rakhine state Attorney General Kyaw Hla Tun said during a state parliament meeting on May 20 that there are more than 100 court cases in 13 townships in which people have been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law.
Fighting between government and Arakan forces has left 154 people dead and injured 350 others in Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state since the beginning of the year.
Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.