The independent UN human rights expert for Myanmar called for a strong international response on Monday following the executions of four pro-democracy activists by the country’s military junta. In a statement issued later in the day, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was "dismayed" that despite appeal from across the world, military leaders had move ahead with "no regard" for international rights law.
Thomas Andrews said he was “outraged and devastated” following what’s believed to be the first use of capital punishment in the Southeast Asian nation in decades.
I'm devastated by news that former parliamentarian Zeyar Thaw and longtime activist Ko Jimmy were executed with two others today. UN Member States must honor their lives by making this depraved act a turning point for the world's response to this crisis. My statement attached. pic.twitter.com/zhdBxFDXoo— UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews (@RapporteurUn) July 25, 2022
The four - including activist Ko Jimmy and lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw - were convicted of helping to carry out alleged "terror acts".
“This cruel and regressive step is an extension of the military’s ongoing repressive campaign against its own people", said High Commissioner Bachelet.
“These executions – the first in Myanmar in decades - are cruel violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of a person, and fair trial guarantees. For the military to widen its killing will only deepen its entanglement in the crisis it has itself created.”
Ms. Bachelet called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and others arbitrarily detained, and urged the country to reinstate its de-facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April, the four men had been accused of helping insurgents to fight the army that seized power in a coup on February 1 last year, and unleashed a bloody crackdown which has resulted in multiple rights abuses.
Violations of international law
The executions were carried out despite worldwide pleas for clemency for the four men, including from UN experts and Cambodia, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Mr Andrews condemned the decision to go ahead with the executions when they were announced in June. In a statement he said the men were “tried, convicted and sentenced…without the right of appeal and reportedly without legal counsel, in violation of international human rights law.”
He called for “strong action” from UN Member States against the “widespread and systematic murders of protesters, indiscriminate attacks against entire villages and now the execution of opposition leaders.”
“The status quo of international inaction must be firmly rejected,” he added.
In June, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also called for charges to be dropped "against those arrested on charges related to the exercise of their fundamental freedoms and rights, and for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Myanmar".
UN Special Rapporteurs such are tasked with specific thematic or country mandates by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, where they report back on their fact-finding or monitoring missions, usually at one of the forum’s three regular sessions a year. The expert positions within the Council’s Special Procedures section are honorary and incumbents are not paid for their work.
Among those executed was Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former lawmaker from ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. Also known as Maung Kyaw, he was convicted in January by a closed military court of offences involving possession of explosives, bombings and financing terrorism.
Phyo Zeya Thaw was arrested last November based on information from people detained for shooting security personnel, state media said at the time. He was also accused of being a key figure in a network that carried out what the military described as terrorist attacks in Yangon, the country’s biggest city.
Also executed was democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, for violating the counterterrorism law. He was one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of a failed 1988 popular uprising against military rule.
He already had spent more than a dozen years behind bars for political activism before his arrest in Yangon last October. He had been put on a wanted list for social media postings that allegedly incited unrest, and state media said he was accused of terrorist acts including mine attacks and of heading a group called Moon Light Operation to carry out urban guerrilla attacks.
The other two, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were convicted of torturing and killing a woman in March 2021 who they allegedly believed was a military informer.
First execution since 1976
The last judicial execution to be carried out in Myanmar is generally believed to have been of another pro-democracy activist, student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo, in 1976 under a previous military government led by dictator Ne Win.
In 2014, during the period of democratic reform, the sentences of prisoners on death row were commuted to life imprisonment, but several dozen convicts received death sentences between then and last year’s takeover.