“He’s a human rights defender peacefully trying to help his community,” said Jim Lougren of the Frontline Defenders organisation, which works to protect activists in oppressed nations and communities. “It’s effectively a case of arbitrary detention…we would argue that this case is without merit.”
Since being arrested U Kyaw Hla Aung has not had access to a lawyer or been able to contact his family. He has been charged with rioting armed with a deadly weapon, encouraging persons to take part in an unlawful assembly and voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter a public servant from his duty.
The charges against him stems from an incident on April 26 when a group of Rohingya youth in the Boduba IDP camp refused to fill out a census form that identified them as “Bengali”. The situation escalated until the youths attacked several immigration police.
U Kyaw Hla Aung is accused of making phone calls instructing the youths to attack officials but his family says the only calls he made to Bodupa were to try and calm the angry mob.
U Win Myaing, a spokesperson for the Rakhine government, said he was not familiar with the details of U Kyaw Hla Aung’s case but said police would not target activists for their beliefs alone.
“I don’t think that happens,” he said.
The timing of U Kyaw Hla Aung’s arrest is especially significant as it came on the same day that President U Thein Sein announced during his visit to Europe that the government would release all political prisoners by the end of the year. The President’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
“[This trial] ties into the larger issue of the environment in which human rights defenders can carry out their work,” Mr Loughren said. “In many countries there is a gap between rhetoric and the truth on the ground. The credibility of [U Thein Sein’s] commitment depends on who the system actually works.”
While he has no access to legal representation, Frontline Defenders has people in Rakhine State assisting U Kyaw Hla Aung and his family during the trial. Mr Loughren said the group is also lobbying leaders in Europe on U Kyaw Hla Aung’s behalf.
Amnesty International has taken up U Kyaw Hla Aung’s cause, publishing information about the case and encouraging people to lobby for his release, proper treatment in custody, as well as access to adequate legal representation. Amnesty also highlighted the 74-year-old’s health concerns which include hypertension and gastric problems, requiring frequent medical treatment.
This is far from U Kyaw Hla Aung’s first brush with the justice system. Before becoming a lawyer he was a clerk at the Sittwe High Court.
His children say he was first arrested in 1986 after he wrote an appeal on behalf of local farmers whose land had been confiscated.
After being released in 1988, he assisted Rohingya political parties that were preparing for the upcoming election.In what sources describe as a “large crackdown” on Rohingya activists in 1990, U Kyaw Hla Aung was again arrested and spent the next 10 years in prison.“At that time we had difficult lives,” said his eldest son, who is 35 and works as a human rights activist in Bangkok.
In June 2012, a Rakhine news website, Freedom News Group, posted a story on June 10 alleging that two boxes of firearms had been seen being delivered to U Kyaw Hla Aung’s home in Sittwe. He and his colleagues were detained by the police, who also said they had a letter linking U Kyaw Hla Aung to Al Qaeda.
The next day, U Kyaw Hla Aung’s home was burned down while he waited in prison. His family – wife, son and three daughters – are staying in a rented home near an IDP camp in Sittwe. They declined to be interviewed for this article, citing safety concerns.
When asked if he wished his father would stop his activism, his eldest son said, “No … we have to work. It is our duty, we have to protect innocent people, that is what I believe.
“[My father] works for many people. When he was in Sittwe prison [from 1990 until 2000] he helped write appeal letters for other inmates. Both Muslims and Rakhine,” he said.
U Kyaw Hla Aung’s is next due to appear in court on August 15.