Man Arrested for Facebook Post Denied Bail, Moved to Insein Prison

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 16 October 2015

RANGOON — The husband of renowned activist May Sabe Phyu, who was detained this week over a Facebook post viewed as defamatory to the Burma Army, has been denied bail and transferred to Rangoon’s Insein prison, his wife said on Friday as she waited for a visit with the detainee.

Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, 43, was apprehended by plainclothes police on Wednesday at his home in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township, where he lives with his wife, a high-profile peace and gender equality activist.

May Sabe Phyu arrived in Rangoon on Friday morning after being informed of her husband’s arrest while she was on business in Ireland. The internationally renowned activist promptly returned to Burma to attend to her husband’s case.

Khum Jaa Lee was arrested on defamation charges related to sharing a photo of a man wearing a Kachin-style longyi stepping on a portrait of Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.  A Lt-Col for the Burma Army filed a suit against him under the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which carries penalties of up to three years in prison.

His wife was granted a 30 minute meeting with him on Friday, the first family contact he has had since his arrest. Speaking to The Irrawaddy just after her visit, May Sabe Phyu said her husband was forced to sign a confession and fears the case was fabricated.

She said her husband’s Facebook account appeared to have been hacked, and he maintained that he did not share the post in question. According to May Sabe Phyu, the defendant said interrogators forced him to sign a document several pages in length and containing photographic printouts, but he was only shown the first page and asked to sign it.

May Sabe Phyu also voiced concern about her husband’s health in the notorious lock-up, as he suffers from severe asthma and was likely without his inhaler.

“I think it’s too harsh,” she said of the government’s decision to detain him in response to the Facebook post.

The controversial photo was widely shared by other social media users, prompting questions over why Khum Jaa Lee may have been expressly targeted by authorities.

“While the government and the international community are trumpeting Burma’s progress toward democracy, what is happening now indicates that freedom of expression is still a sensitive issue,” his wife said, making a public plea for him to remain honest throughout his detention.

“I want to warn him to make sure he sticks to the truth, even if he faces forced interrogation,” May Sabe Phyu said.

Patrick Khum Jaa Lee is at least the third person to be arrested after sharing a Facebook post deemed to defame the Burma Army. On Tuesday, a young woman was detained and brought to trial after sharing a satirical post on social media comparing Burma Army uniforms to a feminine longyi donned by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Earlier this year, a photographer was similarly arrested for sharing a photo deemed insulting to the military. He was released after three days of interrogation.

The international community has rushed to the defense of the two detainees currently on trial. On Friday, US State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in Washington he was “disappointed” by Khum Jaa Lee’s arrest, and called for the immediate release of both detainees.

Kirby said use of the law to restrict freedom of expression contradicts the Burmese government’s stated commitment to democratic reform and human rights.

“Freedom of speech, including speech that discusses the military and other government institutions, is integral to a democratic society. And we call on authorities to release these individuals immediately and unconditionally,” Kirby said.

A similar request was made in a statement by Amnesty International on Thursday evening, demanding an immediate pardon and referring to Burmese authorities as “dangerously thin-skinned and vindictive.”

“They might claim that the country has turned a corner on human rights, but this is yet another chilling reminder that the same repressive practices continue,” Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s Burma researcher, said in the statement.