Summary injustice for reporters in Nay Pyi Taw drone case

No access to lawyer. No contact with family. No time to prepare a defence. Taken together, it means no fair trial.

PICTURE THIS: You’ve been arrested and held in police custody, but haven’t yet had access to a lawyer or your relatives. You don’t know what you have been charged with, let alone the nature of the prosecution case.

You’re brought before a judge, who commences a summary hearing, announces a charge and asks how you plead. You’ve never heard of the law in question – much less know its intricacies. Your lawyer advises you to plead guilty and take a slap on the wrist.

What do you do?

This was the conundrum that four people – a Singaporean, a Malaysian and two Myanmar nationals – faced in Zayarthiri Township Court on November 10. Told at the last minute they would face the charge under a summary hearing, they pleaded guilty. But they didn’t get a slap on the wrist; instead, they got two months in prison, for an offence that carries a maximum three-month sentence.

The group – three journalists and a driver – were arrested two weeks earlier for flying a drone above the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw while on assignment for Turkish broadcaster TRT World. You can debate whether the charge was merited. Some from the National League for Democracy have told the media that the journalists broke the law so therefore can’t complain about receiving a prison sentence.

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There are many problems with this line of thinking. It conveniently overlooks the fact that dozens of people fly drones in Myanmar every day in violation of the same law and face no sanction. It also ignores the question of whether the charge was politically motivated, whether the law in question is unfair or outdated –aviation has come a long way in 83 years, after all – and whether the punishment fit the crime.

But for argument’s sake, let’s accept that it was reasonable for the authorities to detain the defendants and bring them to trial on this particular charge.

Justice was not done.

No access to lawyer. No contact with family. No time to prepare a defence. Taken together, it means no fair trial. That is the real issue here.

There were apparently other violations of fair trial rights, too. Foreign detainees were asked to sign documents in Burmese, with no translation, for example. It’s unclear whether the defendants had much say in the choice of lawyer.

The scariest feature of all this is that the case involves foreign and local journalists, and is being watched closely by the media. What happens when no one pays attention? As the NGO Justice Base showed in a recent report, violations of fair trial rights are routine, particularly at the early stages of a hearing.

Defence lawyers also have an important role to play. As Justice Base noted, too often they are reluctant to speak out about violations of their clients’ rights. The thinking seems to be that complaining will anger the authorities and result in retaliation for their clients – or potentially themselves.

It is unclear whether this was the case in the Nay Pyi Taw hearing on November 10. Requesting more time to prepare an adequate defence would have been advisable, but it’s easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight. When you have no time to prepare a proper defence, a guilty plea to what seems like a minor charge may seem appealing.

But failure to speak out about basic violations of fair trial rights sets a dangerous precedent. It normalises abuses and sends the message to the authorities that they can behave as they like and nobody will complain.

It’s only by campaigning actively for legal rights to be upheld and drawing attention to violations that the system will change.

It will not change immediately; legal reform in Myanmar will take decades and the end result is likely to be imperfect. But it has to start somewhere.

This editorial appears in the November 16 issue of Frontier. 

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