Home News Prominent Burmese Christian leader in poor health in prison

Prominent Burmese Christian leader in poor health in prison

Myanmar’s military, which seized control of the elected government in a February 2021 coup, routinely uses criminal defamation laws to punish its critics

A prominent Burmese Christian leader who had asked U.S. President Donald Trump to hold the Myanmar military accountable for its human rights violations, is in poor health, suffering from lung problems and high blood pressure while in detention, his wife and other sources said.

Dr. Hkalam Samson, 65, former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and the first ethnic leader from Myanmar to appeal to Trump in person, is being tried by a secret internal court in Myitkyina Prison, where he is being held. 

Authorities have charged him with criminal defamation, incitement and unlawful association with an illegal group, said sources close to the court. 

Samson appeared before the prison court on Jan. 11 and 13, they said. 

Myanmar’s military, which seized control of the elected government in a February 2021 coup, routinely uses criminal defamation laws to punish its critics. The military stands accused of wide-ranging violence and atrocities against civilians and ethnic minorities both in recent years and during its 1962-2011 rule over the country. 

Samson was arrested at Mandalay International Airport on Dec. 4 on his way to medical treatment in Bangkok, Thailand, because his name was on a no-fly list. He was interrogated overnight at Central Regional Military Command headquarters.

The following day, authorities flew him back to Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, where members of the junta arrested him again upon arrival.

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An attorney, who did not want to be identified for safety reasons, said the religious leader was arrested outside established legal procedures.

“If a person is to be arrested, there must be a warrant issued for him,” he told RFA “Also, at the time of the arrest, you have to explain the reason for the arrest, [and] the detainee has to be placed in a police station first. After that, he can be transferred to the interrogation center.”

“But now, the detainees are taken directly to the interrogation centers, and the police must open the case as instructed by the interrogation center,” he said. “This is not in accordance with legal procedures.”

It also means information that surfaces during interrogations cannot be used legally, yet the courts are issuing decisions based on that, the attorney added.

‘Strength from God’

Samson’s wife, Zhon Nyoir, told RFA that said she is worried about her husband’s health because he has not been allowed to see his family since his arrest, and the family is not permitted to send him medicine or food.

“But now, he has to face the trial,” she said. “I can’t do anything but pray and take strength from God.”

The attorney noted that it is illegal to forbid family members from meeting with detainees indicted under certain laws. 

The Burmese Baptist denomination that Samson previously led is headquartered in Myitkyina and has about 400,000 members, most of whom are ethnic Kachin.

A convention official who refused to be named for security reasons told RFA that Samson has always been active in helping those affected by internal armed conflict and performing humanitarian work.

“Especially in the case of IDPs, he risked his life and went to the dangerous front-line areas where the fighting was going on, to evacuate [people],” he said, referring to internally displaced persons. 

More than a month before his arrest, Samson participated in humanitarian work to help injured civilians receive emergency medical treatment after junta soldiers attacked people at an annual concert hosted by the Kachin Independence Organization, an ethnic Kachin political group. The group’s armed wing has been actively fighting against junta troops since the coup as well as training anti-regime People’s Defense Forces.

More than 60 people died during the armed assault, Kachin residents said at the time. 

In 2017, Samson visited the White House and thanked Trump for imposing travel bans on senior Myanmar military commanders involved in a violent crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that occurred the same year. He also appealed to Trump to take action against religious persecution in Myanmar and to support the country’s transition to genuine democracy and federalism.

The Northern Regional Military Command, based in Kachin state, later brought a defamation lawsuit against Samson for speaking about Myanmar’s religious and human rights situation during the meeting with Trump, though the case was later withdrawn.

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