Rakhine civilians released from Sittwe Prison three years after notorious beating incident

Five civilian residents of Rakhine State who were arrested and beaten three years ago for their alleged support of the Arakan Army (AA) were released from Sittwe Prison on Tuesday.

The men, all aged between 22 and 27 at the time of their arrest in April 2020, were later charged under sections 50j and 52a of the Counter-Terrorism Law. They were handed their three-year sentences in July of last year, more than two years after the charges were laid.

Four of the men were from Ponnagyun Township, located east of the capital Sittwe on the western bank of the Kaladan River, while the fifth was from neighbouring Mrauk-U Township.

Less than a month after their arrest, video footage showed the five men—blindfolded and with their hands cuffed behind their backs—being beaten and tortured by soldiers on a navy boat travelling from Ponnagyun to Sittwe.

The military’s atrocities came to light when video of troops torturing five blindfolded and handcuffed civilians on a navy boat went viral on social media in May of 2020

The military detained nearly 40 civilians in Kyauk Seik, a village a short distance north of the town of Ponnagyun, at around the same time, but later released all except the five seen being beaten in the videos. 

After the videos went viral, the military promised to investigate and take appropriate action against its soldiers for using illegal interrogation methods. However, no details on how the soldiers involved were disciplined have ever been released. 

Nyi Nyi Aung, one of the released prisoners, told Myanmar Now that he and the other prisoners “faced many difficulties in prison.” 

“We had trouble receiving food packages because we were from a rural area, far from Sittwe,” he said, adding that there are about 70 other people arrested for having links to the AA still detained at the prison.

“I want them to be freed if they were wrongly accused and arrested,” he said. 

Hundreds of people are believed to still be in regime custody on suspicion of having ties to the AA, an ethnic armed organisation that has been active for more than a decade.

In November 2020, just months before it seized power, the military reached a ceasefire with the group after two years of fierce fighting. A number of prisoners were released at the time, but many others remained in detention. 

After fighting reignited last year, more than 300 civilians were arrested for suspected connections to the AA in October and November alone.

When the two sides agreed to another ceasefire on November 26, more than 80 civilian detainees were released, according to an AA spokesperson.

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