Myanmar has descended into a “human rights catastrophe”, the UN’s top human rights official has warned in the run-up to the scheduled start of the trial of Myanmar’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces criminal charges that could lead to decades in prison.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who previously spent a total of 15 years in detention at the behest of Myanmar’s generals and is widely revered as a symbol of the country’s yearning for democracy, is expected to appear in court in Naypyidaw on Monday.
She was placed under house arrest in February when the military launched a coup, provoking defiant protests from the public who demanded the return of democracy. In a statement on Friday, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said the country had “gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe”.
After peaceful street demonstrations were crushed by military violence, a growing number of grassroots defence groups have formed to defend themselves against military attacks – at times using little more than homemade hunting rifles to protect their neighbours. Some groups have received support from armed insurgent organisations, which have fought with the army for decades seeking greater autonomy.
The military has deployed heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, against armed groups and civilians to crush such resistance. More than 108,000 people have fled their homes in Kayah State alone, according to the UN.
“The military leadership is singularly responsible for this crisis, and must be held to account,” Bachelet said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal team believes she has little knowledge of what is happening across the country, where key services – such as schools and hospitals – have been brought to a standstill by an anti-coup strike. She has been unable to access the internet, watch television or read anything other than military-controlled media, according to her defence lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw.
Ahead of her trial, her lawyers have been granted permission to speak with her for just three 30-minute sessions, with the final meeting scheduled for Monday morning. “The time is not sufficient. She even said – six cases, and 30 minutes, it is five minutes for each case,” Khin Maung Zaw said.
Aung San Suu Kyi faces a wide range of allegations, though it is not clear which will be dealt with first by the courts. She is accused of breaching coronavirus restrictions during last year’s election, inciting public unrest, violating a telecommunications law and import law by possessing walkie-talkies, and breaking the official secrets act. On Thursday, further charges were announced in state media, which reported that she was accused of accepting $600,000 cash and 11.4kg of gold, in bribes, and misusing her authority to rent land. This case has not yet been referred to the court, according to Khin Maung Zaw.
If she is convicted on each charge, and sentencing is handed down consecutively, she “will not be released in a lifetime”, he said. “She is quite experienced, so she is well composed. She doesn’t seem to be afraid or depressed,” he said. “She seemed as determined as ever.”
David Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst, said the charges were clearly an attempt by the military to justify the coup and discredit Aung San Suu Kyi. “It’s really just to send the message that she was a traitor, corrupt, she thwarted the elections and did it for financial gain, she pretended to be a democratic purist but deep down she was just a cheap crook,” he said. “I don’t think too many people are going to believe it, because look who it is coming from.”
At least 861 people have been killed by the junta, according to the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), while almost 4,800 people are in detention or have been sentenced by the military since it seized control of the country. Protesters, poets, medics, journalists and social media celebrities are among those held. Reports of torture in prisons are widespread.
On Thursday, at a trial held at a makeshift court inside a prison, 32 young activists were sentenced to between two and four years in prison for charges including incitement and unlawful assembly, according to local media. A dissident who was released told the independent outlet Myanmar Now that activists had been tortured during interrogation. Pictures printed by the news site showed dark red lashes covering a man’s back.
Bachelet said she was “deeply troubled by reports of detainees being tortured” and raised concern over the collective punishment of family members of activists. One mother of an activist was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in place of her son on 28 May, according to the UN.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial is scheduled take place at a court inside Naypyidaw council, according to Khin Maung Zaw. “As a lawyer practising in Myanmar I have an ethical duty to trust our jurisdiction, our supreme court and subordinate courts,” he said. But he added that, having worked on Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, and those of other political leaders, he was doubtful there would be a fair trial.
It is expected that plaintiffs will give evidence next week, and that Aung San Suu Kyi will be cross-examined during the first week of July. However, previous scheduled hearings have been delayed.