RANGOON — Aid worker Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, who was jailed last month over a Facebook post he disputes sharing, has been denied a request for bail submitted on the grounds of his deteriorating health condition.
After more than three weeks of detention in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison, Khum Jaa Lee appeared in Hlaing Township court on Friday visibly weak and having lost a considerable amount of weight.
His wife, renowned peace and women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu, said her husband’s health has deteriorated and she is concerned that he may suffer a stroke, as he did in June 2014.
The defendant’s second request for bail on the grounds of his severe health condition was denied on Friday, and he is set to return to court on Nov. 13.
“The court is not taking any consideration about his health,” May Sabe Phyu told The Irrawaddy shortly after the proceedings. “They are denying bail without giving any proper reason, this is my opinion.”
His wife said he alerted her of symptoms such as numbness of the hands and legs, high blood pressure and stomach pains.
“These are not good symptoms. Whether the court finds him guilty or not, they shouldn’t deny a citizen his rights,” she said.
Khum Jaa Lee was arrested on Oct. 14 and charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, a controversial provision carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison. He has been accused of sharing a photograph on Facebook picturing a man wearing a traditional Kachin garment and stomping on an image of Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Khum Jaa Lee and May Sabe Phyu are both ethnic Kachin.
After his arrest, Khum Jaa Lee was taken to prison and later allowed to see his wife, who told The Irrawaddy at the time that he denied sharing the offending post and was forced to sign a confession.
His arrest was the second in a rash of recent lock-ups related to materials shared on social media. Just days before Khum Jaa Lee was apprehended, Chaw Sandi Tun, a young supporter of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was arrested and charged with defamation after sharing a digitally altered image likening military uniforms to women’s clothing.
She has also been detained since her arrest and could face up to five years in prison under the equally contentious Electronic Transactions Law.
Late last month, the Telecommunications Law was wielded once again, this time against an official from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Than Tun, a senior party member in Irrawaddy Division, was accused of sharing an image of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi’s face transposed onto the body of a naked woman. He was released on bail early this month.
In a lewd and ludicrous development, a young poet with ties to student activists spent weeks on the run after learning he faced a charge under the Telecommunications Law for sharing a verse on Facebook suggesting that he had a tattoo of the president on his penis. Police tracked down the elusive Maung Saungkha on Thursday, and he remains in custody.
The string of arrests garnered near universal condemnation from rights defenders, foreign governments and even election observers. The US-based Carter Center, which is monitoring the lead-up, conduct and aftermath of a general election to be held on Nov. 8, said in its latest report that the arrest of two civil society actors—a reference to Khum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandi Tun— “contribute to concerns about the openness of political space,” recommending their release.
Amnesty International has also campaigned to free the accused, painting Burma’s authorities as “dangerously thin-skinned and vindictive” in the face of criticism. Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s senior Burma researcher, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the group remains concerned about Patrick Khum Jaa Lee and a growing number of other citizens viewed as political prisoners.
“The fact remains that he should never have been arrested and detained in the first place,” Haigh said. “Unfortunately he is not the only peaceful activist behind bars—he is among 19 new prisoners of conscience jailed in the last month. All should be released immediately and without conditions.”