At least 64 Myanmar citizens detained in protests against the country’s Feb. 1 military coup have been sentenced to death by junta courts, with the condemned list including two boys below the age of 18, according to sources in the country.
Most were arrested in townships in the former capital Yangon, where martial law was declared following the army’s takeover on Feb. 1, sources say. None of those sentenced are believed to have been executed, though, with no death sentences known to have been carried out in Myanmar since 1998.
Writing in a letter to his mother sent from prison, one of those condemned—17-year-old Nyein Kyaw Thein, formerly a student at the Thanlyin Youth Training School—denied his guilt in the case of a coup supporter, Zaw Min, who was murdered and set on fire in Yangon’s South Dagon township at the end of March.
“They have called me a killer, but it isn’t true. I didn’t kill anyone,” Nyein Kyaw Thein said, asking his mother to stay strong and look after herself and his father. “Everything’s fine with me. I’ve made you miserable, Mom, and I’d like to make it up to you when I come back, I promise,” he added.
Speaking to RFA, Nyein Kyaw Thein’s mother said she was surprised when soldiers came to arrest her son on April 17, a little more than two weeks after Zaw Min was killed.
“I asked him if he had been involved, and he said he didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “There had been a lot of shooting that day, and the boys went into hiding that night, but we were able to keep in touch by telephone.”
Arrested that same day, 15-year-old Min Thu, a 7th grade student in the school attended by Nyein Kyaw Thein, turned himself in to authorities after being told that his brother-in-law had been detained to force his surrender, his sister said.
“I asked my brother if he had been involved in the killing, and he denied it,” the young woman said. “But someone told him that the police had arrested my husband because they couldn’t find him, and so he gave himself up.”
“He’s a good boy, not a bad kid at all,” she said. “He tells us that [the police] have stopped beating him now, but he’s still being abused by others,” she added.
Four brothers who were working on security duty in their ward of the city on the night of the killing were later taken away from their home at gunpoint after they went to see the murder scene out of curiosity, their mother said, also speaking to RFA.
“At the time, I couldn’t say anything, but it was heartbreaking to see my boys taken from their home in handcuffs,” she said. “We heard nothing about them after that, but later learned that they had been sentenced to death.”
“How am I supposed to take that?” she asked.
“If they had been given prison terms, I would know at least that I would see them again some day after their release, and I could still have some hope for the future,” she said. “But now I can’t do anything but pray every night for their safety.”
“It’s unbearable that they’re in this situation now without having done anything wrong.”
Of the 18 defendants sentenced to death in the Zaw Min case, 11 are now in prison and seven were sentenced in absentia, sources say.
'I suffered in silence'
Bo Bo Thu, sentenced to death in a separate case involving the killing of two soldiers in Yangon’s North Okkalapa township, has now had his sentence commuted to life, his mother told RFA, saying “At least he’s lucky not to be on death row.”
When her son was first sentenced she couldn’t eat or sleep, and would not tell her husband what had happened, she said. “I just kept it in my heart and suffered in silence.”
“I prayed and prayed that my son would not end up on death row—and not only him, but everyone else who had been arrested,” she said.
Myanmar defendants sentenced to death can appeal their sentences within 15 days, but only prison officials are allowed to submit their appeals, lawyers say, with one lawyer telling RFA that officials assigned by prison authorities to submit the documents prepare them according to statements made by the prisoners themselves.
“And we don’t know whether what they’ve written is in accord with the law or not,” he said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a spokesperson for the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said the death sentences imposed by military courts in Myanmar have been handed down “out of resentment.”
“People don’t support their coup and are opposing it in any way they can. And amid all the arbitrary arrests and beatings, the people are fighting back in self-defense. The military then holds a grudge against the people, and they are handing down these death sentences out of resentment,” he said.
Nickey Diamond, a human rights specialist with the Southeast Asian rights group Fortify Rights, said that in recent years death sentences formerly imposed in Myanmar were changed under new laws to sentences of life in prison.
“But there are fears now that the [ruling] Military Council might ignore this fact.”
“These [death sentences] are the junta’s attempt to intimidate those who are opposing the dictatorship and to make them afraid,” he said.
According to data gathered by AAPP and RFA, of the 64 persons sentenced to death in Yangon since the Feb. 1 coup, 20 were sentenced in North Okkalapa, 18 in South Dagon, five in Shwepyithar, seven in Hlaing Thar Yar, and 14 in Shwe Paukkan Myothit.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.