Myanmar’s military regime is under pressure to pardon and release ultra nationalist monk U Wirathu, who is facing a sedition charge for inciting disaffection with the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government in May 2019.
The controversial monk is charged with sedition under Section 124(a) of the Penal Code. However, because the sedition charge was filed by the former government, rather than an individual, it cannot be summarily dismissed, a source close to the regime told The Irrawaddy.
A number of notorious nationalists who faced the same charge were released by the regime within two months of the February 1 coup. They include U Hla Swe, a former lieutenant colonel and member of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party, U Htay Aung and Michael Kyaw Myint, the general secretary of the ultra nationalist Yeomanry Development Party.
But those nationalists were reportedly prosecuted by individuals and not by the government. Lawyers say that U Wirathu will have to go on trial and his release will be subject to the decision of the judge.
“The sedition charge can be settled if the lawsuit is filed by individuals. But the monk was charged by the government, so it can’t be dropped,” said lawyer U Myint Aung, citing the country’s Criminal Code of Procedure.
“Under the law, the defendant can only be released when the court rules that he is not guilty. In Sayadaw U Wirathu’s case, it is more difficult because the prosecutors no longer exist. It is a procedural problem,” said a source close to the regime.
The junta could scrap the lawsuit against U Wirathu, but it is concerned that lawyers will use that decision as a precedent in future cases, resulting in legal complexities. An additional problem is that the regime has suspended all trials during the current COVID-19 surge. U Wirathu caught coronavirus while detained in prison.
“Sayadaw has recovered from COVID-19. But he can’t use one of his arms and the State Administration Council (SAC) is treating him at a military hospital instead of sending him back to prison,” said the source.
In a video circulated on social media last month and reportedly recorded on May 8, the firebrand monk said that the ousted NLD government had organized his trial via video conferencing despite the COVID-19 outbreak, but that there had been no court hearings since the coup, even in March and April when there were no coronavirus cases in the country.
U Wirathu said that he was remanded in custody again and again by district judges via video conferencing, but there was never any court hearing. His case has finally reached Yangon’s Western District Court and the judge was now only waiting for orders from above, he added.
“The NLD government detained and degraded and persecuted a monk. The SAC is doing the same things, but is also driving a monk crazy. U Hla Swe was granted bail, so I thought it was my turn next week. But I was remanded instead,” the monk complained in the video.
He went on to say that he felt like the SAC was waging psychological warfare against him. The monk, once a staunch supporter of the Myanmar military, added that he had put his faith in the regime because the NLD had already knocked him out once, but that now it felt like the SAC has knocked him out twice.
In May 2019, the then Yangon regional government filed a case for sedition against U Wirathu on behalf of the NLD government for attempting to incite disaffection with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government. The monk was on the run for over a year before turning himself in to the police in November last year.
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