In a lawless land, any law will do

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Human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists are often concerned with how special laws are used to suppress dissent and deny basic freedoms in countries around the world. Internal security acts and emergency decrees attract widespread interest and strong critiques. How ordinary laws are used to the same ends often obtains less notice. And yet it is in the workings of mundane codes and procedures that the efforts of governments to control the largest numbers of their citizens are brought into sharpest focus.

Burma is a case in point. Democracy campaigners have long described it as having some of the most draconian and sweeping security laws in the world. Now a lawyer has said that around 20 detainees are likely to be charged under one of these. The persons, held since last August, are expected to face charges under law 5/96 for “acts such as incitement, delivering speeches, making oral and written statements and disseminating in various ways [sic] to belittle the National Convention” on a new constitution.

Like hundreds of other people locked up since the nationwide uprising last year, none of these persons were ever in fact arrested.Unidentified men bundled them into unofficial vehicles and took them to undisclosed places. They were snatched. Even the state media quietly acknowledged this much, describing them as “brought, investigated and questioned”. Those freed have been forced to sign incoherent pledges, admitting that they have committed undefined crimes and have been released because of the state’s goodwill.

Among those still inside, including dozens of defrocked monks and nuns, few have been charged under security laws. Most have been accused of ordinary crimes: insulting religion; keeping obscene materials or illegal videos; gambling, carrying weapons. And if one charge doesn’t stick, there’s sure to be another.

The imprisonment of Khin Sanda Win (pictured above), a 23-year-old university student, is indicative. She was stopped by unknown men on September 29 and taken to the town hall in Rangoon where she was photographed standing behind some arms on a table, with a group of other people whom she had never met. Then she was put inside. Law never even entered into it.

At the end of October, Khin Sanda Win was let out after signing a pledge, but shortly thereafter police came to her house and said that she would be charged after all, for allegedly having a slingshot in her bag when she was picked up. Apparently the officers had not realised that possessing a slingshot is not prohibited.

When Khin Sanda Win came to court she was instead accused of endangering life. The judge granted bail at an amount that exceeded what was legally permissible, and then without reason unilaterally retracted it. She has since been held in solitary confinement at the central prison and attempts to get her released have been singularly unsuccessful.

Such cases are nothing new to Burma. Officials large and small routinely lay run-of-the-mill charges against perceived troublemakers or personal enemies. Cases for upsetting the peace, insulting public servants and lodging false complaints are commonplace. Other targets are accused of apparently unrelated crimes, such as trading in illegal lottery tickets or tutoring without a licence. Judges have been known to advise inept prosecutors on which charges with which to secure a guilty verdict.

In this setting talk only about specialised security laws and high-profile dissidents holds little value. When a country’s entire criminal legal system has been reduced to a means to other ends, trying to make sense of one particularly nasty provision or an especially ugly case is pointless. Instead, real effort is needed to understand and describe the whole; to identify those features that a single case has in common with others rather than those that may distinguish it from the rest.

Having documents called laws and people called judges does not alter the fact that Burma is fundamentally lawless. The serial abducting, detaining and belated charging of last year’s protestors is a symptom of this condition. Ultimately, those accused of threatening the National Convention are just another 20 defendants denied lawyers or rights, and for this reason alone, rather than the law under which they have been charged or their personal backgrounds, they are worthy of concern and advocacy.

Source: Detainees in Burma–In a lawless land, any law will do (Jurist)

See further: Burma, political psychosis & legal dementia (article 2)

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