By Francis Wade
The Burmese government as been warned by a UN body comprised of legal experts in the human rights field that its sentencing of two journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma is arbitrary, and now faces high-level calls for their release.
Twenty-one year old Sithu Zeya and his father, U Zeya, were handed lengthy sentences last year after Burmese intelligence discovered they had been working for DVB. Sithu Zeya was arrested after being caught filming the aftermath of the Rangoon grenade attacks in April 2010; under torture, he revealed that his father was also a DVB video journalist.
A five-page opinion adopted by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that their sentencing was in violation of articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which cover freedom of expression and assembly.
Wong Kai Shing, the director Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, which has made a number of calls for their release, said in a statement yesterday that the Burmese government “is under obligation to take this call from a UN human rights expert body very seriously”, particularly in light of its proclamations that Burma is transitioning to a democracy.
In August Sithu Zeya had his sentence extended by a decade after he was found guilty of breaching the Electronics Act, which has been used by the government on numerous occasions to target journalists feeding footage to foreign and exiled media organisations. He is now due to serve 18 years behind bars.
U Zeya was given a 13-year term on the same raft of charges his son was sentenced under, and is currently being held in Hsipaw prison in Shan state.
The two are among around 1,700 political prisoners in Burma, including politicians, monks, doctors and lawyers. Some are serving sentences of more than 100 years for their activism, although Naypyidaw refuses to acknowledge that it has jailed anyone on ‘political’ charges.
Yet according to the Working Group, the government, having initially arrested the two on suspicion of involvement in the Rangoon attacks, later admitted to the body that they had been sentenced for their links with DVB.
Despite the two being charged under the Unlawful Association Act, as well as the Electronics and Immigration Act, DVB is not classified under Burmese law as an illegal organisation. The government however has not clarified the nature of this charge.
Wong Kai Shing said the UN decision also raised an issue regarding political prisoners that has remained absent from the majority of appeals for their release, that of “the question of appropriate legally enforceable compensation for what has oftentimes been years of illegal imprisonment”.
The mother of Sithu Zeya reported shortly after his arrest last year that he had been beaten and denied food for two days whilst being interrogated. In January 17 inmates in the same Insein prison ward that Sithu Zeya was being held in began protesting the 21-year-old’s ill treatment by authorities, which included being held in solitary confinement and acts of public humiliation.
Fellow DVB reporter Win Maw, who is serving a 17-year sentence in Kyaukphyu prison in westernmost Burma, was recently awarded the prestigious Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artists Prize 2011. As well as his work in journalism, Win Maw is a recognised singer/songwriter whose compositions were used in the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ.
At present 14 journalists who worked for DVB are behind bars in Burma, down from a total of 17 following a prisoner amnesty in October.
Burma has a long history of criminalising independent journalism, and has consistently ranked at the tail end of press freedom indexes, although a government advisor said earlier this week that draconian censorship laws would soon be done away with.