By Joshua Carroll
An international human rights organization has slammed the Myanmar government for denying fair trial to 12 Muslim men accused of receiving training from a so-called "Myanmar Muslim Army".
Defense lawyers for the men along with security experts have claimed that the group does not even exist, suggesting that the government has invented a threat from a terrorist outfit just to justify its persecution of Muslims.
In a statement Sunday, Fortify Rights claimed that authorities had allegedly tortured the defendants now facing trial at Aung Myay Thar San Township Court in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city
"Justice can’t prevail when torture is tolerated," said Matthew Smith, Fortify's executive director. "This trial will be tainted until these allegations are properly addressed and fair trial standards are fulfilled."
At a Sept. 17 hearing Fortify said Soe Moe Aung, 24, had testified that authorities had beat him in detention, deprived him of food and water, fed him pills, and administered unknown injections during interrogations that lasted for around one week.
Soe Moe Aung has alleged that he was subsequently coerced into signing a document that he presumed to be a confession.
All of the defendants are reported to be Muslim men, between 19-58 years old, from Mandalay, Karen State, and Shan State and are accused of associating in 2014 with a group the prosecution refers to as the "Myanmar Muslim Army".
But during the trial, Fortify says that the government failed to present evidence of the existence of the group or any connection with the defendants.
Meanwhile, it said that police officers serving as the government’s lead witnesses justified withholding evidence by invoking the Official Secrets Act.
"A trial should be based on facts and evidence, not suspicion and secrecy," said Smith. "The state has so far failed to show evidence to justify the charges against these defendants."
The defendants were arrested and detained from Nov. 14 - Dec. 26, and have been charged under section 5(J) of Myanmar’s Emergency Provisions Act.
They face up to seven years in prison. Smith says that the Mandalay court has already convicted and sentenced three of the men to three years in prison for alleged immigration violations.
A verdict on the charges is expected Dec. 7.
"The Myanmar government must ensure the right to a fair trial for all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or the nature of alleged crimes," said Smith.
"Relying on torture and shoddy trials will only serve to perpetuate injustice and sow the seeds for future conflict."
Little is known of the Myanmar Muslim Army outside of a brief mention in a 2015 Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) report, in which Rohan Gunaratna writes of "unconfirmed reports about the emergence of a new group called Myanmar Muslim Army (MMA), which is reportedly using Thai territory for training Myanmar Muslims".
The existence of the group is yet to be confirmed by human rights groups, terrorism experts, or the U.S. State Department.
In May, Zachary Abuza, a specialist in Southeast Asia security issues and politics, told digital magazine The Intercept that he had never heard of the "Myanmar Muslim Army".
"Sounds completely fictitious to me," said Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC. "I would doubt that any group fighting the state would even use the term 'Myanmar' as that legitimizes the regime."
Myanmar's Muslim minority consists mostly of Rohingya, who have faced widespread persecution for decades, but their situation has become ever more perilous since sectarian violence erupted in 2012.
Many Muslims were not allowed to stand in the Nov. 8 election on dubious citizenship grounds, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were also unable to vote because the government bowed to calls from ultra-nationalists to exclude them.
Fortify Rights is a non-profit human rights organization based in Southeast Asia and registered in Switzerland and the United States.