In a landmark court ruling, Burmese judicial authorities have rejected the official police version of events that led to the death of a man in their custody. This finding opens the possibility for a murder charge to be brought against the officers involved in the death of Myo Myint Swe, a 19-year old flower seller, who died on June 28th 2012.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) obtained a copy of the Mayangone Township Court’s findings from November 9th 2012. The court ruled that Myo Myint Swe’s death was unlikely to have been natural. According to AHRC, the police of the Bayinnaung Police Station attempted to cover up his torture and murder. Officers at the Mayangone police station allegedly illegally detained the young man and after two days notified that family that he had died in custody due to illness. However, when the family saw his body, they observed that he had been brutally tortured. The police have denied that they were responsible for the victim’s death. The doctor who conducted the post mortem on the body recorded on July 23rd that the victim had died due to a heart attack.
Judge Daw Aye Mya Theingi found that although the investigating doctor had been ambiguous about whether or not extensive external injuries caused by torture had resulted in the victim’s death, it was “difficult to conclude that the death was natural” based on the testimonies, written records and photographs submitted to the court.
The ruling was issued to conclude a post-mortem inquest under section 174 of the Burmese Criminal Procedure Code; criminal charges are not automatically brought against anyone possibly responsible for Myo Myint Swe’s death as a result of the court’s finding. Yet the court’s conclustion that the death was unlikely to have been natural leads to the conclusion that someone was responsible for the death, according to AHRC. As the nature of the injuries described in the courtroom testimonies, and recorded on the post-mortem inquiry findings, are such that they could not have been sustained by accident, the organization claims that the logical conclusion is that the police killed Myo Myint Swe.
In Burma, when a case is opened for a serious crime at a police station, due to the absence of credible investigations and rule of law, many poor innocent people are arrested as accused persons and tortured to confess to crimes that they have not committed. Some, like Myo Myint Swe, die during torture. Afterwards, says AHRC, police commonly claim that they have died as a result of illness, and rely on medical staff, prosecutors and judges to conspire with them to cover up their crimes.
So, with this ruling, a new door has opened, if only just a crack. With the changing political environment in Burma, the case has the potential to be an impetus for change and an end to impunity. Very rarely have police officers been held to account for their crimes, especially those committed against people in custody. Against the backdrop of international and internal demands for accountability and rule of law in Burma, the ruling of the Mayangone Township Court stands out as a major step into a new era juridically, as well as politically, claims AHRC.
The case has already attracted a considerable amount of attention. The family continues to demand justice and has refused attempts of the police to silence them through payment or other methods. The case is commanding attention not only because of the specific circumstances relating to this one victim but because of the prospects that new inquiries into many other cases of death in custody documented. AHRC’s hope is that if the family of this victim of torture and killing can succeed in bringing charges against the police responsible, they will give renewed hope to the relatives of countless other victims.
AHRC together with the family of the deceased and his lawyers are calling for murder charges to be brought against the police officers allegedly involved. They also want the Burmese government to initiate a special inquiry into those who have attempted to cover up this killing
The type of police torture that was evidently resulted in Myo Myint Swe’s death, including various forms of assault and the technique of running a truncheon or roller along the shins of the victim until the skin literally peels away, is not illegal in Burma. The country has no law to criminalize the use of such torture. With this case, members of parliament should take up the question of torture in earnest, and push for their country first to sign the UN Convention against Torture, and then to introduce and implement a domestic law to prohibit the practice of torture.
If policy are able to carry on arbitrarily detaining, torturing and killing people in their custody, rule of law will not come to Burma. As long as people continue to suffer at the hands of state agents, the possibility of real change is daunting. In this one case, there is a chance to hold perpetrators accountable and bring the country one step further in the direction of democratization.