Myanmar’s defense lawyers for political detainees are facing increased threats from the junta which has carried out arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings since last year’s coup.
The junta supporters watch them and encourage their arrest. There were calls for the arrest of a female lawyer who posted condolences on social media after the mother of her jailed client was killed in October’s blasts and junta shooting at the parcel drop-off at Yangon’s Insein Prison.
Lawyers say they can no longer express compassion for the death of innocent civilians.
A pro-junta Telegram post said: “Isn’t it too dangerous not to do anything to lawyers that support terrorism? Aren’t you concerned that they would spy on confidential information at government law offices and leak it to terrorist state-destroyers? That lawyer should be interrogated. Her red Facebook profile means she does not care about the current government.”
Red is the color of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD).
At least 20 lawyers have been charged with terrorism and incitement since the coup for joining anti-regime protests and for having alleged links to the National Unity Government (NUG), which has been labeled a terrorist organization.
Among the detained lawyers were Daw Ywet Nu Aung, who was acting for ousted Mandalay Region chief minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, and lawyers acting for prominent protest leader Ko Wai Moe Naing from Monywa in Sagaing Region. Some lawyers have been in hiding since arrest warrants were issued.
“The regime wants to stop lawyers from working by arresting some of them and deterring the others,” said a lawyer.
It also issued gagging orders about legal cases and clients.
The legal team of detained State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from talking to the media, diplomats and international agencies, limiting information about her ongoing trials.
Detained lawyers have been forced to kneel with their hands tied behind their backs and have been subjected to obscenities, according to a female lawyer.
“Soldiers at the interrogation centers do not know who’s who. One of my colleagues said they threatened to stamp on his throat and cut off his tongue if it stuck out,” she said.
They want to inflict psychological trauma and instill fear, she said.
Lawyers who are known for acting for free for political detainees are particularly targeted.
Another female lawyer said: “They threaten lawyers who dare to speak boldly at a trial. I was warned and told to sign a statement that I would not do it again. I thought I would be arrested. It was at the trial at a prison. I was taken away by armed soldiers. They wanted to charge me but they could not find a reason. And they want to know why we represent [political detainees] for free and how we make a living.”
Many lawyers are struggling financially as they provide free legal services for political detainees.
“Few clients have money to pay. We try not to neglect people so we take on more cases,” said a Yangon lawyer.
The clients incur costs with court clerks demanding bribes for services like photocopying.
Lawyers are only required to pay 100 kyats per photocopied page but clerks are demanding much larger sums, lawyers said.
The Bar Council Act was amended under the NLD government to protect the rights of lawyers but the regime has abolished the right of lawyers to elect the council and enabled the junta to appoint the legal body. Under the amendment, the junta-appointed attorney general and chief justice will appoint the council.
The regime has also scrapped a provision that calls for “preventing and reducing unnecessary detention in police cells and prison during police work and interrogation and prevent arbitrary arrests”.
The regime has been ignoring other legal protections. It is prosecuting political detainees at military tribunals where defendants are denied their right to counsel and handed long prison sentences or even the death penalty.
A lawyer said: “The regime has instructed the courts to imprison them and so they will always get three years, even with a lawyer. It makes little difference. Across the country, I have never seen a political detainee charged with incitement declared innocent and set free.”
Lawyers continue to accept new clients to serve as a bridge with families who are denied prison visits and provide a level of protection against torture and abuse and help with access to food and medicines. They also want to monitor the regime’s behavior.
Unfair trials will be revealed in the future and those responsible held accountable, said a lawyer.
“There will be changes and we want to establish a fine legal tradition,” he said.