Fairness of ‘Muslim Army’ trial questioned, torture alleged

07 December 2015
Fairness of ‘Muslim Army’ trial questioned, torture alleged
Mandalay City. Photo: Mizzima

A verdict in the controversial trial of 12 Muslim men accused of receiving training from an armed group called the “Myanmar Muslim Army” is expected this week, according to a human rights group. 
Fortify Rights said authorities allegedly tortured defendants who are now facing trial at Aung Myay Thar San Township Court in Mandalay Region.
At a hearing monitored by the group on Sept. 17, defendant Soe Moe Aung, 24, testified that the authorities beat him in detention, deprived him of food and water, fed him pills, and administered unknown injections during interrogations that lasted approximately one week, according to the group. He alleged that he was subsequently coerced into signing a document that he presumed to be a confession.
Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, said international law bans torture unequivocally and all states have an obligation to protect the human rights of those in detention. 
He said Fortify Rights monitored nine court hearings and examined approximately 170 pages of court documents pertaining to the case. The defendants are Muslim men, aged 19 to 58 years old, from Mandalay Region, Karen State, and Shan State. The are accused of associating with a group the prosecution refers to as the “Myanmar Muslim Army” in 2014.
Smith said that during the trial, the government failed to present evidence of the existence of the Myanmar Muslim Army or the defendants’ connection to the group. Police officers who testified as the government’s lead witnesses justified withholding evidence in the case by invoking the Official Secrets Act.
At several points during cross examination, government witnesses said they had no specific evidence demonstrating the existence of the Myanmar Muslim Army or that various defendants were connected to each other or to armed groups. In lieu of evidence, government witnesses testified that they received information about the allegations “from above,” according to Fortify Rights.
Part of the government’s case rests on allegations that some of the defendants traveled to Thailand via Myawaddy, Karen State to receive training from the so-called “Myanmar Muslim Army.”
The defendants face up to seven years imprisonment. The court has already convicted and sentenced three of the defendants to three years in prison for alleged immigration violations.
A story in The Intercept website on May 25 noted that the government began a crackdown on Muslims this year. It said the administration of President Thein Sein has refused to disclose any evidence that the “Myanmar Muslim Army” exists. Several unrelated cases involved arrests of Muslims between September and November.
Officially, about four percent of the country’s population is Muslim, but the actual number is believed to be higher, perhaps as much as 10 percent. The largest Muslim population, the Rohingya ethnic group, is concentrated in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, while other Muslims are scattered throughout the country. The government has denied Rohingya citizenship for decades, and according to several human rights groups, they are the targets of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has helped prompt a desperate exodus by boat in which an estimated 300 people died in the first quarter of this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Muslims accused of belonging to the “Myanmar Muslim Army” or plotting terrorist actions hail mostly from central and northern Myanmar, according to the website.
They are portrayed by state officials and extreme Buddhist nationalist movements as outsiders and a common enemy, a narrative begun long ago, critics say, in order to distract attention from political conflicts created by the military dictatorship, which lacked popular legitimacy.
The mother of one of the defendants was quoted as saying the authorities accused him of undergoing training in a camp. The accused attorney said most of the defendants didn’t know each other before the trial.
“When I asked the prosecution’s witnesses [from the Police’s Special Branch] for evidence about the Myanmar Muslim Army, they answered that they couldn’t speak about it before the court … that this information came from above,” the attorney was quoted as saying. 
In an interview with The Intercept, the director of the Myanmar president’s office, Zaw Htay, defended the government’s position. 
“The Home Affairs ministry has all the evidence on these activities, but we can’t make it public because this is a national security issue,” he said. When asked how the accused can expect a fair trial when the prosecution’s evidence is withheld in court, he answered, “They have the right to appeal in upper courts.”
Zaw Htay declined to say how many people are believed to be members of the group. “There are many activities outside the country, and they want to promote their terrorist attacks with some people inside the country, so right now we are doing a preemptive strike to protect ourselves against any possible attack.” 
Legal Aid Documentation Team, a civil society organization, claims that as of February, around 100 Muslims had been arrested on charges of terrorism since last year.
The existence of the “Myanmar Muslim Army” has not been confirmed by terrorism experts, human rights groups, or the U.S. State Department, said the website.