Myanmar man indicted for insulting military under controversial law

August 22, 2016 8:26 AM EDT

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By Shwe Yee Saw Myint

YANGON (Reuters) - A court in Myanmar indicted a man on Monday for insulting the military chief and former president on social media, under a controversial telecommunications law that activists have urged the new government to repeal.

Police and military prosecutors have filed a lawsuit accusing Hla Phone, 38, of posting a digitally altered image on his Facebook account showing the military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, wearing a traditional female skirt on his head.

Another picture showed a caricature of former president and retired general Thein Sein with the words "we are murderers", and a third showed the national flag imprinted on a shoe.

The military ruled Myanmar for almost 50 years after a 1962 coup, crushing opposition until it began withdrawing from politics in 2011, and paving the way for a 2015 election won by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the military retains a major role in politics with control of 25 percent of seats in parliament and three important ministries, including home affairs, which oversees the police, and it has become increasingly sensitive about its image.

Hla Phone, who has been in prison since his arrest in February, denies wrongdoing, saying he did not post the images and the police had mistaken him for someone else.

"I was wrongfully arrested and I've spent six months and 12 days at Insein prison," he said told reporters outside a court in Yangon city, referring to a notorious jail.

He said he was not the owner of the Facebook account upon which the insulting images were posted.

Asked by the judge if he was guilty, Hla Phone replied: "I am not guilty but those who filed the charges against me are."

If convicted on all charges, he faces 11 years in prison. The trial starts on Wednesday.

Particularly controversial is the charge brought under the telecommunications law, enacted in 2013 as part of the opening up of the sector.

It contains a broadly worded clause prohibiting use of the telecoms network to "extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate".

Several activists, including poet Maung Saung Kha and aid worker Patrick Kum Jaa Le have been sentenced to six months in jail under the law.

Human rights lawyers and activists, including the group Human Rights Watch, have called on the new government to amend or repeal the law saying it stifles free speech.

Military officials were not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Shwe Yee Saw Myint; Editing by Robert Birsel)



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