#AceNewsReport – Aug.12: Arguing that the BAJ’s dissolution would violate Belarus’s obligations with regard to the freedom of association, the protection of human rights defenders and the freedom of expression, RSF’s submission urges the Supreme Court to assume its role as guarantor of the international obligations of Belarus by rejecting the justice ministry’s application…
#AceDailyNews says the organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has submitted an amicus brief to the Belarusian Supreme Court challenging the justice ministry’s request for the disbanding of RSF’s local partner, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) acording to RSF_en
Made last month, the justice ministry request is clearly based on spurious grounds and, in reality, is designed solely to prevent the BAJ, an NGO that defends journalists, from continuing to promote independent and pluralistic media and journalism.
The amicus brief that RSF filed at the BAJ’s request on 10 August is expected to be considered at a Supreme Court hearing on 11 August.
“Disbanding the BAJ on the grounds proposed by the government would be another flagrant and very serious violation of Belarus’s international obligations,” said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF’s legal unit. “We have unfortunately become used to this after a year of systematic harassment of civil society, especially journalists. RSF calls on the Supreme Court to play the role it should be playing, that of guarantor of international obligations signed up to by Belarus, by allowing an NGO that should be the pride of Belarus to enjoy the freedom to operate.”
The Belarusian authorities have had their sights on the BAJ for years, but especially so since the wave of protests following President Alexander’s disputed reelection on 9 August 2020. The BAJ’s activities in defence of Belarusian journalists and in defence of media freedom, pluralism and independence have now made it a priority target for the government.
In February, the authorities searched its premises and the homes of several of its leaders, seizing thousands of documents and sealing its offices. In June, the justice ministry ordered an audit of the BAJ involving further searches and seizures. The BAJ was then asked to provide thousands of pages of documents – documents that it was unable to produce as a result of the confiscations and closures of its premises. The authorities also allege that two of its local branches do not have legal addresses – a claim that the BAJ denies.
In mid-July, the justice ministry submitted a request to the Supreme Court for the BAJ to be liquidated on the grounds of “failure to correct the violations revealed by the ministry of justice during the inspection,” namely the failure to produce the requested documents and the lack of legal addresses for the two local branches.
The amicus brief – the legal term for a submission by a third party with the aim of providing a judge with relevant information and legal arguments – submitted by RSF draws attention to Belarus’s international obligations with regard to the freedom of association, the protection of human rights defenders and the freedom of expression, and explains how the BAJ’s dissolution would violate these obligations and international law.
Belarus has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that translates the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into binding terms, and supplemented by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Belarus is also a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The Covenant, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the OSCE’s guidelines on safeguarding freedom of association and freedom of expression all impose strict limitations on the restrictions that may be placed on these rights and freedoms.
The Covenant clearly states that any such restrictions must pursue a legitimate objective and be necessary and proportionate to that objective in a democratic society. Belarus is also subject, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to an obligation to honour its commitments in good faith. A decision by the supreme court to confirm the BAJ’s dissolution – as unfortunately seems likely – would constitute a flagrant and very serious violation of all these obligations.
#AceNewsReport – July.30: When Swe Win was shot through the leg while on holiday in the west of Myanmar in December 2019, his first thought was that it must have been a stray bullet:The investigative journalist was in the car with his wife and daughter when a shot ricocheted off the car door near the handle………Then, as Swe was preparing to leave Myanmar with his family, he received a chilling message shattering any illusion that his shooting was a random event: Just before boarding a flight from the capital Yangon to Australia, a military intelligence officer pulled him aside, warning it “was not an accident”
#AceDailyNews says investigative journalism & uncovering the shadowy business empire bankrolling Myanmar’s military generals can be a dangerousbusiness Swe Win found out after a bullet was fired at him and soon after he received a message from an officer who said ‘it was not an accident’ soon the attack it was never investigated but Swe believes the order to kill came from the top, from Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s powerful military….
A former political prisoner who spent seven years in jail, Swe is the editor and co-founder of Myanmar Now, a bilingual online news outlet.
[It] came towards my neck,” he tells Foreign Correspondent from his new home in Melbourne, “then got redirected and hit my leg. I immediately thought this must be an accident.”
In the years leading up to his assassination attempt, Swe and his team of 40 journalists had published a swathe of articles exposing the Burmese military’s vast and shadowy business empire.
One article about the business interests of Min Aung Hlaing’s children had hit a nerve, undercutting the “selfless image” the military leaders tried to project, according to Swe.
“Our stories destroyed that sort of propaganda,” he says. “It’s about the level of corruption within the top echelon of the military establishment. So that infuriated the military generals.”
Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, maintains a network of over a hundred business entities spanning most sectors of the nation’s economy, from mining to transport, tourism, telecommunications, banks and even beer.
It delivers hundreds of millions of dollars in cash into military coffers annually and has become a powerful factor in the military’s enduring grip on power in Myanmar.
Six months after the military launched a brutal coup to oust the civilian-led government, some observers are calling on the international community including Australia to ratchet up sanctions targeting the junta’s expansive business interests.
“We need to use every means possible to put pressure on the military to get back in the barracks, and the economic side of that is critical,” says Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti.
Uncovering a secret empire
In 2017, Sidoti was part of a United Nations fact-finding team tasked with uncovering evidence of the military’s abuse of Myanmar’s ethnic communities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya.
Sidoti says they found plenty of evidence of war crimes and possibly even genocide. Then they also uncovered something they weren’t looking for — the source of the military’s power.
As well as identifying business entities, the UN found 15 foreign companies engaged in joint ventures with military businesses and at least 44 others with some form of commercial ties with the Tatmadaw.
For Sidoti, it raised alarming questions about how much control the civilian government could wield over the cashed-up military.
“They were not dependent on the parliament for their funding but they had all these independent means of acquiring wealth for corruption, and also wealth for operations,” he said.
“It was impossible to see how the civilians could gain control over the military when the military had independent access to very substantial sums of money.”
After the UN team’s report was published, a covert activist group called Justice For Myanmar continued to document the true extent of the military’s business interests, with more than 130 business entities so far identified as linked to the generals.
Two opaque conglomerates are the key to the military’s wealth: Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEC) and Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).
Justice For Myanmar conservatively estimates the two conglomerates, which are controlled by the military’s top brass with ultimate authority resting with Min Aug Hlaing, funnel at least $435 million to the military annually.
Since the coup, the military has also taken over control of the lucrative Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the state’s principal revenue earner forecast to generate more than $2 billion in 2021 to 2022.
Sidoti warns if that money falls into the hands of the military, it will further cement the Burmese military’s grip on power and allow it to continue to act with impunity.
“The military has been in a constant state of war with its own people for 70 years now,” he says. “And it’s been able to do this because of its economic wealth.”
A broken system
Thinzar Shunlei Yi knows first-hand just how tight the military’s grip on Myanmar has become. She grew up in a military family and was supportive of the Tatmadaw as a young child.
Then in her 20s, she became a prominent pro-democracy activist, campaigning against the military’s brutal treatment of ethnic minorities.
Before the coup, Thinzar Shunlei Yi presented a popular youth TV show.
When the military seized control of the country, shattering its young democracy, Thinzar Shunlei Yi took to the streets along with millions of others to protest.
“It was such a shocking time,” she says, “I never thought that it could happen, it was the worst nightmare I could ever have imagined.”
Led by Generation Z, the protesters called for the civilian government to be reinstated but within weeks their demands grew bolder.
“Many young people were dreaming of more than just restoring the civilian government, or to release the civilian leader, they are demanding a bigger future,” she told Foreign Correspondent from a secret location.
“They wanted to abolish the 2008 constitution. When the coup happened, it gave us space to reshape our future.”
The Tatmadaw has been the most powerful institution since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948 and has had unchecked control over the country’s political system ever since.
After ruling for nearly 50 years, in 2008 the military held a constitutional referendum, a step in its so-called “roadmap to democracy”.
The Green Book, as the constitution became known, preserved the military’s control over the government, guaranteeing it 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and giving it effective veto control over any constitutional reforms.
Apart from its economic wealth, the 2008 constitution also gave the military political power with complete control over three key ministries of Defence, Border Affairs and Home Affairs.
“The 2008 constitution was always the main root cause of the problems in the country,” says Thinzar Shunlei Yi.
“Because whenever we try to advocate to advance our freedoms … they control what should be there.”
In April, in response to the people’s demands, a new political force emerged to challenge the military’s reign.
The National Unity Government — currently in exile — is comprised of ousted MPs, leaders of anti-coup protests and members of ethnic minorities. It say it’s the answer to healing a divided country.
They have abolished the 2008 constitution, recognised the Rohingya and are calling for a federal democratic union.
Zin Mar Aung, a National League of Democracy candidate, was elected to parliament in the November 2020 elections and is now the Foreign Minister in the new government in exile and is also in hiding.
Having grown up under military dictatorship she spent nine years in solitary confinement after protesting peacefully against the military.
In her first television interview, she told Foreign Correspondent that there will be no compromise with the military.
“If we win, democracy wins,” she says. “If we lose, the authoritarian will win. It’s the last battle for us and for our country, whether we let the military win or the democracy win. We don’t want our new generation to be under such a brutal military government.”
Cutting off the cash
As democracy advocates and the National Unity Government continue to push for a political solution, Chris Sidoti says there’s another way to undercut the military’s power.
With more information now known about the Tatmadaw’s secretive business operations than before, he says targeted sanctions could help unravel its control.
“Cut the arms flow, cut the cash and cut the impunity,” he says. “Sanctions are an essential tool provided they are carefully targeted on the military and the military’s businesses.”
The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada have all started implementing targeted sanctions against the military and senior generals.
However, Myanmar’s regional neighbours — its biggest foreign investors — have been slow to act.
Chris Sidoti is particularly scathing of Australia’s lack of action. He says the government imposed sanctions on a number of generals following the UN report but not against Min Aung Hlaing.
“I find it bizarre that after what happened on the 1st of February, there was any longer any excuse whatsoever for not sanctioning the criminal in chief and his deputy,” he says.
A government report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade published in June recommended the Australian government “further consider imposing targeted sanctions upon additional senior figures in the Tatmadaw and Tatmadaw-linked entities including MEC and MEHL”.
Another recommendation stated that “the Australian government formally engage with groups and individuals representing the legitimately-elected representatives of Myanmar … and the National Unity Government.”
Zin Mar Aung from the National Unity Government told Foreign Correspondent while some members of parliament had communicated with the National Unity Government, the Australian government had had limited dialogue.
“Australian government response is quite delayed and not enough pressure. We need to make clear that government is quite slow.”
The Australian government told the ABC “additional sanctions have not been ruled out” and that “Australian officials are engaging with representatives of the ‘National Unity Government’ and plan to continue doing so”.
While the international community remains divided on sanctions, the people of Myanmar are launching their own action to sever the military’s purse strings.
Apps like”Way Way Nay”, which translates to “stay away”, encourage consumers to boycott military affiliated products.
Within months of the coup, a mass boycott of Tatmadaw-affiliated beer saw sales plummet by up to 90 per cent, wiping an estimated US$1 billion off the value of its military-linked parent company Myanmar Brewery Limited.
Meanwhile, a nationwide civil disobedience movement led by doctors, teachers and civil servants have launched strikes and shut down public schools and hospitals.
Manny Maung, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the Burmese people understand that “they don’t want these criminals to profit” from money that should be helping run schools and hospitals.
“They do want to bring the economy down to its knees and they know what the consequences are,” says Manny Maung.
Since the coup, Swe Win’s team of journalists have gone into hiding in Myanmar, fearful of military reprisals, while he manages the team from exile.
Many journalists are still working covertly inside Myanmar like “underground operatives”, Swe says, shunning cameras in public and being careful to not openly conduct interviews.
The stakes are high, with more than 900 people including children killed by the military and thousands arrested, including more than 80 journalists.
“Our work is very dangerous,” Swe says. “We are trying to do as much as we can … to play our roles in fighting against the military rule and giving a more honourable — a more dignified life — for the future generations.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar on YouTube.
#AceNewsReport – June.03: The journalist said that police guards in the detention facility didn’t let him sleep properly during his time in detention and conducted nightly checks, which involved him getting completely naked:
BELARUS: DW reporter released after 20 days of detention: Shortly after his release he spoke about the conditions in detention and compared it to a “military prison.”
Freelance journalist Alexander Burakov, who regularly reports for DW from Belarus, was released on Tuesday after spending 20 days in detention. Speaking to DW after his release, Burakov compared the detention facility where he had been held to a “military prison.”
“They were waking me up twice a night every night, taking me out of my cell and telling me to take my clothes off, including underwear,” Burakov said. Similar checks also took place during the day. Burakov counted a total of 63 checks during his detention. He was also moved to a different cell every day, having to share a double cell with three other detainees for a few days.
Burakov also complained that police guards hadn’t provided him with a pillow, a blanket or bed linen. “No pillow is the worst,” he recalled, adding that he had to sleep on an empty plastic bottle for 20 days instead. The police guards also didn’t provide warm clothes or most of the food and personal belongings his relatives had brought him. When he demanded that the guards follow the internal rules of the detention facility, they used force against him by twisting his arm.
The journalist started a hunger strike in detention as an act of protest but had to end it after seven days due to health problems.
Belarusian leader defiant after journalist’s arrest
“I am very relieved that our colleague has withstood the unlawful detention more or less unscathed. But there are growing concerns that the spiral of state violence against journalists keeps turning,” DW’s Director General Peter Limbourg said in a statement. He noted that it is becoming more likely that the regime in Belarus will “hush the last independent voices in the country, no matter by what means.”
In May, Limbourg strongly condemned Burakov’s arrest and demanded that Belarusian authorities overturn the sentence. “It is not a good sign that the Belarusian ambassador in Berlin or the authorities in Minsk didn’t react to our protests against the arrest and conviction of Alexander Burakov,” he said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Media in Belarus increasingly under pressure
Burakov was arrested near a regional court in his home town of Mogilev, 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Belarus’ capital, Minsk, on May 12, while on an editorial assignment for DW’s Russian-language service. He was supposed to report on a trial against the opposition politician Pavel Seviarynets, who was accused of “participating in mass riots.”
Three days after his arrest, Burakov was sentenced to 20 days in a detention facility on the charges of “repeatedly participating in an unsanctioned demonstration within a year.” Burakov and human rights activists said no mass demonstration took place in front of the court in Mogilev that day.
The head of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch in Berlin, Hugh Williamson, said he was not surprised by Burakov’s claims about the conditions in detention. “We’ve documented cases where journalists were brutally beaten while in detention. They were denied medical assistance and held in extremely poor conditions; their equipment was confiscated and destroyed,” Williamson told DW.
He reminded that many journalists “had to either go underground or flee the country” amid a severe clampdown on media in Belarus.
The repression of journalists in Belarus has intensified since the presidential elections in August last year. Many journalists have been fined or imprisoned. In the most recent example of such repression, Belarus authorities ordered the country’s largest independent media outlet, Tut.by, to shut down. Its chief editor, Marina Zolotova, was arrested on accusations of tax evasion and faces up to seven years in prison.
#AceNewsReport – June.02: We call on the Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer to take responsibility for Mratt Kyaw Thu’s asylum procedure.”
RSF Report: ‘Asks Germany to let Myanmar journalist Mratt Kyaw Thu apply for asylum after the journalist was able to obtain a Schengen visa at the Spanish embassy of one of Myanmar’s neighbouring countries, but decided to enter Germany during a stopover in Frankfurt’
Thanks, among other things, to a three-week stay in Germany on a Goethe-Institut programme, he has many contacts and is well connected there. When he arrived at Frankfurt airport, he applied for asylum. However, he was refused entry and a Dublin Procedure was initiated, because under the Dublin Regulation he is obliged to file his application in the country of destination, in his case Spain.
At the same time, at the request of the federal police, on 24 April 2021 the Frankfurt District Court issued an order for him to be put into preventive detention. Since that date Mratt Kyaw Thu has been living in a closed refugee accommodation centre at the airport. He had to hand over his mobile phone to the police, he has no internet access and he can only speak to a handful of people.
Germany can take responsibility for the asylum procedure
Article 17 (1) of the Dublin III Regulation provides an EU member state with the possibility, known as the sovereignty clause, to declare itself responsible for processing an asylum procedure even though it would normally not be responsible for this process. So far Germany has systematically applied the sovereignty clause for asylum seekers who entered the country via Greece and for Syrian asylum seekers. In the case of Mratt Kyaw Thu, too, many circumstances speak in favour of applying this possibility.
A broad alliance of people and organizations supporting him argue that granting a journalist like him a place where he can be safe would be a good move not only from a human rights perspective, but also as regards gaining a deeper understanding of the anti-democratic developments in Myanmar. Few journalists are as well connected as he is in the country. International media rely on his knowledge and analysis of the situation there. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle has already offered him a paid internship, and the daily paper tageszeitung (taz) has offered him work on a freelance basis.
RSF published an exclusive interview with Mratt Kyaw Thu last April, in which he explained his dreadful working conditions in %yanmar before he left the country. He became known internationally as one of the few Myanmar journalists to report critically on the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority by the country’s military in 2017. He received the AFP news agency’s Kate Webb Prize for his coverage of the crackdown. Since the military coup on 1 February, he has taken the lead in reporting on the pro-democracy movement against the military junta, the Civil Disobedience Movement. He provides daily updates to more than 250,000 people via his Twitter and Telegram channels.
Since the military coup in February there have been numerous serious violations of press freedom in Myanmar. Reporters have been shot at with live ammunition, editorial offices have been raided, and mobile internet has been completely shut down on several occasions.
On May 23, 2021, Roman Protasevich, 26, a co-founder and former editor of the NEXTA channel on the messaging app Telegram, was arrested along with his girlfriend after his Ryanair flight had been forcedly landed Minsk airport.
Soon, Belarus’ KGB shared a video with the interrogation of the journalist. He also appears to have a small black spot on his forehead.
Protasevich is reportedly facing the death penalty in Belarus.
NEXTA is the Telegram channel NEXTA, which covers political events in Belarus, helped mobilize recent protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
In November 2020, Protasevich and another founder of NEXTA Stepan Putilo, 22, were put on the wanted list; before that, a case had been opened against them for organizing mass riots in Belarus.
#AceNewsReport – May.28: The arrests have continued and jail terms too. That is the situation facing captured blogger Roman Protasevich and his student girlfriend. Mr Protasevich said before he was detained he feared the death penalty, which Belarus still has, because he had seen his name on a terrorism list.
BELARUS: ‘Press Freedom curtailed and stories of fear and violence with some 7,000 Belarusians being rounded up and thrown into crowded prisons in a matter of days, when they took to the streets in August 2020 to denounce the presidential election as rigged with reports suggesting beatings and torture were rife’
One shocking official video, purportedly of a political activist who died last week, shows a man collapsing unconscious in his cell. Belarus’s biggest independent news site Tut.by has been raided and its top editors put in jail.
‘No doubt he was tortured’
Many of the thousands arrested in the capital Minsk last August ended up at the notorious police detention centre at Okrestina Street.
That is also where student Sofia Sapega has been taken, according to her mother. She and Roman Protasevich were arrested after their Ryanair flight was forced to divert to Minsk airport. He is said to be in another Minsk jail, identified as preventive prison number one.
Both have made video confessions, widely assumed to have been made under duress. In Mr Protasevich’s brief video he was shown with dark marks on his forehead.
Reuters: In Roman Protasevich’s “confession” video (L), he can been with marks on his forehead
Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovksaya said: “He’s clearly beaten and under pressure; there is no doubt that he was tortured. He was taken hostage.”
Belarus’s leader of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko, told parliament that ill-wishers at home and abroad had “crossed many red lines and crossed boundaries of common sense and human morality”.Roman Protasevich’s father tells the BBC he is fearful his son may be tortured
Alina, 20, described her treatment at Okrestina last August, after she was grabbed by Belarus special forces. “At the entrance stood a man who shouted: ‘Faster, you bitches!’ I said: ‘Why are you speaking to us like that?’ He grabbed my neck and kicked me against the wall,” she told BBC Russian.
Threatened with violence, she signed a statement without knowing what was in it. “Get on and sign it, or I’ll [rape] you and put you away for another 20 days,” she describes being told.
Another detainee called Sergei described being forced to crawl while being beaten repeatedly. Amnesty International said some ex-detainees had described detention centres becoming torture chambers.
“We were forced to stand in the yard all night. We could hear women being beaten,” said another man who showed the BBC his bruises. Journalist Nikita Telizhenko wrote an account of people lying on the floor, piled on top of each other.
EPAReleased detainees showed their bruising outside the Minsk detention centre last August
At the time, Alexander Lukashenko’s government denied widespread allegations of abuse.
The arrests have continued and, according to human rights group Viasna, there are 421 political prisoners ranging from bloggers to businessmen, peaceful protesters to presidential election candidates.
Among the candidates in jail since last year are Viktor Babaryko and Sergei Tikhanovsky, whose wife Svetlana took over as candidate and later claimed victory in the vote. Babaryko’s closest aide, Maria Kolesnikova, became a protest leader and was detained in September. She faces charges including “conspiracy to seize power through unconstitutional means”.
Political dissidents are still being sentenced. Senior opposition activist Pavel Severinets was given seven years in jail this week for taking part in “mass unrest”, while six others were given jail terms of four to seven years.
Journalists have been targeted too. In February Katerina Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova of Polish-based Belsat TV were jailed for filming an unauthorised protest. This month, Belarus’s biggest independent website Tut.by was raided and many of its journalists arrested. Twelve are still in jail.
Sergei Sheleg/BelTA/Handout via ReutersKaterina Borisevich of Tut.by was jailed for six months for disclosing confidential medical information
Testimony of beatings and torture from freed protesters has highlighted the risk of abuse in Belarus jails.
The death of Vitold Ashurok at a penal colony in the eastern town of Shklou last week aged 50 has raised further questions, according to human rights groups.
Belarus investigative committeeIn the video the man is given an injection before he collapses a second time
A video released by Belarus authorities shows a man, said to be Ashurok, staggering around his cell and hitting his head on a sink and collapsing. The edited footage shows him being given an injection before he collapses again.
Belarus authorities said he died suddenly after a cardiac arrest, although his widow is adamant his heart was healthy when he went into jail.
You don’t need to be a high-profile dissident to get prosecuted in the current climate.
As street protests became increasingly risky, symbolic gestures took over, although even they can be targeted by authorities.
One man was arrested in Minsk for allegedly supporting protesters with a red-and-white “paper banner” on his balcony – the colours of the opposition flag. A woman wearing red-and-white socks was fined 2,320 Belarus roubles (£650; $906) under the laws of unauthorised protest.