Judicial graft case raises questions over suspect’s appointment

Yangon Region’s former chief legal official is a defendant in a high-profile corruption case that has left the NLD government with some explaining to do.


THE NATIONAL League for Democracy’s platform of fighting corruption found expression in the year after the party took office when it signalled a harder line against graft with a reshuffle of the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The appointment of widely respected former Union Solidarity and Development Party government minister U Aung Kyi as ACC chairman in November 2017 came amid perceptions that the commission had lacked teeth since it was created in 2014.

When Aung Kyi spoke at a function marking United Nations International Anti-Corruption Day in Nay Pyi Taw on December 8 last year it was reportedly the first time a chair of the ACC had addressed the event.

The role of the ACC was further bolstered when U Win Myint became president last March and declared that fighting corruption was a top priority. One of his first meetings as president was with the 15-member ACC.

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The Anti-Corruption Law was amended in June to allow the ACC to initiate investigations against officials suspected of being corrupt. Previously, it was a passive body that could act only in response to complaints.

However, the arrest in September of the Yangon government’s chief legal officer and five other officials, and their current trial in a landmark judicial corruption case pursued by the ACC, has also left the NLD with some explaining to do.

NLD information officer U Aung Shin conceded to Frontier that the case against the now-dismissed Yangon Region Advocate General U Han Htoo might lead the public to question the NLD government’s judgement in appointing key figures.

Han Htoo, judge U Aung Kyi from Yangon Eastern District Court and four others are alleged by the ACC to have accepted bribes totalling K72 million to conspire to have charges withdrawn against three men accused of the fatal beating of Facebook celebrity Aung Yell Htwe on New Year’s Eve last year.

Aung Shin said he did not know why Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein had appointed Han Htoo.

“It was a shame for the NLD; he should not have been appointed advocate general,” said Aung Shin, who added that Han Htoo was not a member of the NLD.

“Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein submitted his name for appointment as advocate general to the central executive committee, which forwarded the recommendation to the president. The party did not nominate and appoint him; it was a matter related to the Yangon regional government,” Aung Shin said.

“The people will think that the party nominated him; I can say that he was nominated by the chief minister,” he said.

Frontier tried to contact Phyo Min Thein for comment but he could not be reached.

The corruption allegations emerged after President Win Myint ordered an investigation into a Yangon Eastern District Court’s decision to withdraw murder charges in July against the three men accused of killing Aung Yell Htwe. The president was responding to a public outcry on Facebook over the court’s decision. In September, the Yangon Region High Court ordered that the murder case be retried in the Eastern District Court.

At a hearing on November 23 at the Yangon Region High Court, where the judicial corruption case is being tried, ACC assistant director U Moe Naing testified that the father of one of the suspected killers met Han Htoo at his office on July 3 to discuss having the murder charges withdrawn.

The ACC alleges that Han Htoo accepted a bribe of K15 million and bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky, judge Aung Kyi accepted K33 million and the balance of the K72 million was distributed among the four other defendants.

Aung Shin said a clean government was paramount for the NLD and it had campaigned rigorously against the culture of accepting bribes.

One of the first instructions issued by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after the NLD took office in 2016 was to ban civil servants from accepting gifts valued at more than K25,000. The limit under the USDP government was K300,000.

U Khin Zaw, secretary of the Union Legal Supporting Group, told Frontier that he had regarded Han Htoo as an honest man and found it hard to believe that he could be accused of taking a bribe from the father of a murder suspect.

Han Htoo is an uncle of U Zeyar Phyo, a suspect in the January 2017 assassination of NLD-affiliated lawyer and constitutional expert U Ko Ni.

Meanwhile, a group of lawyers, including legal officers from the Union Attorney General’s Office in Nay Pyi Taw, have launched a campaign of support for Han Htoo.

Lawyers who back the campaign changed their Facebook profile pictures to black. After the campaign drew criticism on Facebook, the profile pictures were mostly changed.

Khin Zaw said he understood that the legal officers launched what is known as a “black campaign” to show respect for Han Htoo, whom they regarded as their teacher.

Khin Zaw said he was personally upset by the case against Han Htoo, “but we need to fight against corruption”.

Prominent Yangon High Court lawyer U Robert San Aung also criticised the “black campaign”, saying legal officers should not support anyone accused of breaking the law and should stand with the government and the people in combatting corruption.

“They have posted calls for him [Han Htoo] to be released,” he said, adding that legal officers should understand why that was not possible in such a case.

To obstruct news photography, the lawyers supporting Han Htoo and family members have also been helping to cover Han Htoo and the other defendants with umbrellas when they enter and leave court hearings at the High Court. Court information officer Daw Nwe Nwe Mu told Frontier that reports that the court’s own staff were also helping to hide the defendants behind umbrellas were untrue.

TOP PHOTO: Supporters of the defendants in the judicial corruption case are concealed by umbrellas while leaving a hearing at the Yangon Region High Court on November 9. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

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