Myanmar: Prominent religious leader in court

(Sydney) – Myanmar’s military junta should drop politically motivated charges against Kachin Baptist leader Reverend Hkalam Samson and release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Rev. Samson’s next hearing on counterterrorism charges, which only his attorney can attend, is scheduled for February 21, 2023 in a special court at Myitkyina Prison.

“The junta’s politically motivated case against Rev. Hkalam Samson, internationally known for his humanitarian and community service work, shows that no one is safe in Myanmar,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The junta should drop the baseless charges against Rev. Samson and release him immediately and unconditionally.”

On December 5, 2022, junta immigration officers and police arrested Rev. Samson at Mandalay International Airport and prevented him from leaving the country. The junta authorities have not released his whereabouts but are believed to be holding him in Myitkyina prison, where hearings are being held before a closed court. His family has not been allowed to see or communicate with him since his arrest.

In December, the junta charged Rev. Samson under Section 17 of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly meeting with leaders of armed ethnic Kachin groups in January 2022 and under Section 505A of the Criminal Code for “incitement” after he held a group prayer with members of the group had held opposition Government of National Unity (NUG). The offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 years each. The junta often uses vaguely worded and loosely interpreted provisions in its penal code to imprison peaceful activists. Hearings on both of these charges ended on February 14 without a verdict.

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On February 14, the junta announced an additional charge against Rev. Samson under Section 52A of the Counter-Terrorism Act for allegedly meeting with a member of the opposition government of national unity, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Rev. Samson, 65, is the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention and chair of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, which facilitated peace talks with the former civilian government of the National League for Democracy party.

In 2019, he was among a group of 27 officials from 17 countries who met then-US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC to highlight the plight of victims of ethnic and religious persecution. Shortly after the trip, the military opened a case against him for his comments in the White House criticizing the persecution of Christian minorities in Myanmar. Authorities dropped the case after concerns were raised by the US State Department.

Since the February 2021 military coup, junta security forces have carried out deadly crackdowns on political opposition to military rule, arbitrarily arrested more than 19,000 people, and committed numerous crimes against humanity and war crimes across the country, documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups.

Myanmar’s junta courts are neither independent nor grant basic rights for fair trials. Many trials take place before grossly unjust military tribunals with closed doors or in “special courts” in prisons, where inmates are not given access to their lawyers until the day of their trial.

United Nations member countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly Indonesia as ASEAN chair, and other concerned governments should urge the junta to immediately release anyone wrongly arrested or detained, including Rev. Samson.

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“The persecution of a high-profile Kachin religious figure like Rev. Samson is a dogged attempt to quell any dissent among ethnic minority leaders,” Pearson said. “ASEAN and other concerned governments should press for the release of Rev. Samson and others who have been unjustly imprisoned since the February 2021 coup.