MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, a new day in the District of Columbia. The first couple to pick up a marriage license in the nations capital after the law changed to merit same sex couples to marry is with us. Well visit with them in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to tell you about an American citizen who was recently arrested in Myanmar, also known as Burma. He is a democracy activist who was arrested there last year after he went to visit his mother, who is also an activist and is also gravely ill of cancer. His American lawyers and family members say that the charges against Nyi Nyi Aung are obviously trumped up and patently false but have resulted in his being sentenced to three years in prison. His advocates fear for his safety and have called upon the U.S. State Department to step in.
And theyre taking their plea public, most recently in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journals Asia edition this week, written by Aungs fiancee, Wa Wa Kyaw. Wa Wa Kyaw is here with us now to talk more about this. Also with us is Jared Genser of the human rights group Freedom Now. He is international counsel to Aung. But you might know that name also because he represents opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Welcome to the program. Welcome to you both.
Mr. JARED GENSER (President, Freedom Now): Thanks for having us.
Ms. WA WA KYAW (Writer, An American in Burmas Gulag): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, before we talk about the whole circumstances around your fiancees imprisonment, I would like you to read, if you would, from the conclusion of the editorial you wrote for The Wall Street Journal. If you would just read that final paragraph, it begins - President Obama and Secretary Clinton.
Ms. KYAW: President Obama and Secretary Clinton, my message is simple. Neither your words nor your actions show that you take my fiancees imprisonment seriously. I beg you to stop ignoring his plight and to help secure his release from this illegal and unjust imprisonment. Just as Nyi Nyi continues to live up to the oath we took to defend America, please live up to the promise America made to defend us.
MARTIN: Theres a statement by assistant secretary, its issued under the name of Philip Crowley, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs, says that the United States is deeply concerned by the Burmese authoritys decision today - this was issued on February 10th, the day of the conviction, to convict U.S. citizen Nyi Nyi Aung on politically motivated charges. We consider these actions unjustified. We continue to urge the Burmese regime to release him and allow him to return home to the United States. It seems fairly direct. What else should they have done, in your view? What else should they be doing, in your view?
Ms. KYAW: To me, urging them to release just from the State Department spokesperson is not going to be enough for this Burmese haunter because the Burmese haunter has been ignoring all the requests from the State Department. And whatever the approach that State Department is doing is just not effective.
MARTIN: Jared, what about you? What do you think? Are there additional steps that you think the State Department ought to be taking? And how do you know that theyre not taking additional steps privately?
Mr. GENSER: Well, weve been in touch with the State Department, as well as with the White House. And theyve argued to us that its in Nyi Nyi Aungs interest that they have private low-level diplomacy or lower level diplomacy. What upsets me about the statement that was released is two things. One, in the case of the white American John Yettaw, who swam to National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyis house and got himself arrested - pretty high profile case last year. When he was convicted, both Secretary Clinton and President Obama personally issued statements in their own names urging his release, right?
And here what we have, rather than the president and the secretary of state issuing a statement is State Department official four levels down in the bureaucracy issuing a rather tepid statement that also fails to mention that Nyi Nyi Aung has been horrendously tortured actually in custody.
MARTIN: How do you know this?
Mr. GENSER: From visits that consular affairs from the United States embassy have had with him.
MARTIN: So, they have had some contact with him?
Mr. GENSER: Yes.
MARTIN: And when you say torture, and as you know this is a very this is a term that is much discussed, what exactly do you mean?
Mr. GENSER: For the first eight days of his detention he was denied food and water, kept awake around the clock and repeatedly beaten over an eight-day period of time. This is what he reported to U.S. consular officials. Secondly, over a four-week period of time he was put in whats called military dog cell confinement. So he was put in a small cell designed for a dog in the part of the prison where all the dogs were kept, in the dark, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for four weeks with dogs barking all around him, not in his cell but next to his cell. This was how he was treated as an American citizen over a four week period of time. And I think that both of these examples clearly cross the line into constituting torture.
MARTIN: You said that you contrasted the treatment or the response of the State Department the U.S. State Department with its response to John Yettaw. You also made a point saying that he's white. Do you feel that the fact that Nyi Nyi Aung is originally from Burma - a Burmese American is part of the issue here?
Mr. GENSER: Unfortunately...
MARTIN: And why do you say that if you do say that?
Mr. GENSER: Well, I mean, I think the State Department would strongly and vigorously deny that, but I have yet to have a good explanation as to why the disparate treatment between him and John Yettaw. Currently, Nyi Nyi Aung is being detained, you know, outside of Rangoon, very far away. He has a three-year prison sentence with forced labor, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for the next three years. Twenty percent of prisoners who are subjected to this treatment die in prison, right? And on top of that, as if that isnt bad enough, the denial of family visits, while it might seem like a morale loss, is actually much more that in the case of Burma.
In Burma, prisoners are provided minimal food and its usually spoiled, rotten, you know, et cetera, and family visits, which usually happen weekly for Burmese prisoners, are the only way that prisoners get supplemental food, vitamins and medicine. And so the combination of forced labor plus denial of family visits and everything that that entails could mean that he could be dead within weeks or months. And so, you would hope and you would expect that there would be a sense of urgency on the part of the United States government. And that the highest levels of our government would get involved given what he is facing. And yet for reasons that I cant explain, John Yettaw got the highest of attention from the president and secretary of State directly and personally.
And Nyi Nyi Aung gets a statement from a State Department official four levels down the bureaucracy. I cant explain it.
MARTIN: He, as we know, he has been a lifelong political activist. He came to the United States in part as a...
Ms. KYAW: Political refugee.
MARTIN: ...as a political refugee...
Ms. KYAW: Right, right.
MARTIN: ...has achieved citizenship. He has visited before - he's gone home before without incident, correct?
Ms. KYAW: Right.
MARTIN: And to that end - and forgive me I do not mean to imply that, in any way, your fiancee deserves the treatment that he is now being to subjected to, that is not my intention - but you had to know that given his political activities he would come under scrutiny, right?
Ms. KYAW: Right.
MARTIN: So, what was the plan? What was your intention? Or, may I ask, is this in part, his visit, a form of civil disobedience at all, in order to highlight the conduct of the military regime in Myanmar?
Ms. KYAW: Nyi Nyi didnt do anything wrong. And, I mean, he was taken from the airport. To me, I mean, he hasnt committed any crime and he was taken from the airport and missing in action for 17 days.
MARTIN: So, even if his intention was to participate in some form of organizing while he was there, he could not have done so is what youre saying. It could not have occurred.
Ms. KYAW: He could - I truly dont think so. Because, I mean, he has been feeling really worried for his mother and his colleagues who are in prison, who - involved in the 2007 revolution. So, I mean, this visit is its mainly for social visit, just try to see his mother.
MARTIN: And Jared, if you would just clarify that - what is the basis of his conviction?
Mr. GENSER: Well, there are three crimes he was convicted of. First, related to so-called currency violation for failing to declare money when he came into the country. That, of course, is patently ridiculous because he was arrested at immigration before customs, before he had a chance to declare any currency he had on him.
The second charge was for failing to renounce his Burmese citizenship after he became an American citizen. That law is actually technically on the books. But under cross-examination during the domestic trial, an official from the ministry of foreign affairs, who had been with the ministry for 20-plus years, acknowledged that he had never seen a Burmese citizen ever charged with this offense.
And the third charge was that he had a fake Burmese identity card on him. Now, I mean, that one obviously appears more serious on its face but seems a lot less serious and, in fact, fraudulent as a charge when you note the fact that in the newspaper article that blasted him as a terrorist and laid out a number of offenses against him shortly after his detention, it didnt mention any fake ID card. And, in fact, evidence was presented in the court with a detailed list of all of the materials that he had on him when he was originally detained and that list contained no fake ID or Burmese ID of any kind.
And so, you know, it's very easy to conclude based on just, you know, a high-level view that, you know, he is being detained pretextually on political grounds.
MARTIN: What is your next step here as his legal counsel?
Mr. GENSER: Well, we have a file to petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on his behalf and intend to prevail before that body. Were talking to a number of members of Congress about doing a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives on his case. Were talking to a number of senators' offices about themselves doing a joint letter to the Burmese general, Than Shwe, who runs the dictatorship. And we, of course, will continue to press the United States government to understand the seriousness of what he is currently facing and to take the appropriate steps.
MARTIN: And Wa Wa, finally before we let you go, obviously youre very concerned...
Ms. KYAW: Yes, I am.
MARTIN: About your loved one, may I ask you, how are you doing?
Ms. KYAW: I am holding, I am hanging in. It's just like, you know, its just not knowing whats going to happen next. Its just really, really frightening. And I dont even know if nobody can assure of that he stay alive or he is in that prison or - it just is really, really frightening. I mean, its really making me worried.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. KYAW: Yeah, thank you so much.
MARTIN: Wa Wa Kyaw is the fiancee of Burmese-American activist Nyi Nyi Aung. He is currently detained in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Jared Genser of the Human Rights group Freedom Now is the international attorney to Nyi Nyi Aung and they were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And we hope youll keep apprised of events in this case.
Mr. GENSER: Thanks a lot.
Ms. KYAW: Thank you so much.
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