Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law calls for an independent judiciary, but the government manipulated the courts for political ends and sometimes deprived citizens of due process and the right to a fair trial, particularly in freedom of expression cases.
The criminal justice system was overburdened by a high number of cases lodged against small-time drug users, who constituted an estimated 50 percent of caseloads in the courts.
Corruption in the judiciary remained a significant problem. According to civil society organizations, officials at all levels received illegal payments at all stages of the legal process for purposes ranging from influencing routine matters, such as access to a detainee in police custody, to substantive decisions, such as fixing the outcome of a case.
The case of political activist Aung That Zin Oo (known as James) illustrates the prolonged delays, procedural irregularities, and political maneuvering that mark the judicial process. On August 25, a township court convicted James of carrying fake identification cards during a 2015 protest and sentenced him to six months at hard labor. James was tried and convicted because the local immigration office refused to drop the charges against him, although all charges against others arrested with him were dropped when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in 2016.
The military and the government directly and indirectly exerted influence over the outcome of cases. Former military personnel, for example, served in key positions, and observers reported that the military pressured judicial officials in cases involving military interests, such as investments in military-owned enterprises.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial but also grants broad exceptions, effectively allowing the government to violate these rights at will. In ordinary criminal cases, the government allowed courts to operate independently, and courts generally respected some basic due process rights such as allowing a defense and appeal. Defendants do not enjoy a presumption of innocence or the rights to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them; to be present at their trial; to free interpretation; or, except in capital cases, to consult an attorney of their choice or have one provided at government expense. There is no right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; defense attorneys in criminal cases generally had 15 days to prepare for trial. There is a fair trial standards manual, but because of the low standard of legal education, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges were often unfamiliar with precedent, case law, and basic legal procedures. While no legal provision allows for coerced testimony or confessions of defendants to be used in court, authorities reportedly accepted both. There were reports of official coercion to plead guilty despite a lack of evidence, with promises of reduced sentences to defendants who did so.
Although the law provides that ordinary criminal cases should be open to the public, members of the public with no direct involvement in a case were sometimes denied entry to courts. Defense attorneys generally could call witnesses and conduct cross-examinations. Prodemocracy activists generally were able to retain counsel, but other defendants’ access to counsel was inadequate.
Local civil society groups noted the public was largely unaware of its legal rights, and there were too few lawyers to meet public needs.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government continued to detain and arrest journalists, activists, and critics of the government and the military. According to civil society groups who use a definition of political prisoners that includes those who may have engaged in acts of violence and excludes some charges related to freedom of expression and religion, there were 36 convicted political prisoners as of October. Another 584 individuals were facing trial for their political views, of whom 193 were in pretrial detention and the rest were out on bail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The ICRC had very limited access to political prisoners.
Authorities held some political prisoners separately from common criminals, but political prisoners arrested in land rights disputes were generally held together with common criminals.
On May 18, the Union Election Commission annulled Aye Maung’s status as a lower house lawmaker and barred him from running in future elections due to his treason conviction. In 2019 Aye Maung, then chairman of the Arakan National Party, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason and another two years for defamation of the state after remarks interpreted by the government as expressing and encouraging support for the AA.
Many former political prisoners were subject to surveillance and restrictions following their release, including the inability to resume studies or secure travel, identity, or land ownership documents.