(NEW YORK)–PEN America joins the international community in renewing a call for death sentences against prominent cultural figures and pro-democracy activists Kyaw Min Yu (known popularly as Ko Jimmy) and Phyo Zayar Thaw to be overturned immediately, after their scheduled executions did not take place on June 10. The organization is again urging all wrongfully-detained writers, artists, and journalists to be freed from Myanmar’s jails.

“These excessive sentences and rapid execution schedule, following a farcical closed-door trial by a military tribunal, fly in the face of international legal norms and should be reversed immediately,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “The junta’s unsuccessful attempts to be granted legitimacy by the international community are due, in large part, to its record of grievous human rights abuses and crackdowns on peaceful protestors and all forms of dissent. The execution of these two activists would be an irrevocable rejection of human rights and would mark a dramatic escalation in the military’s tactics of repression, not used since 1988. PEN America implores the junta to immediately rescind the death sentences for Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zayar Thaw, and to release all political prisoners jailed in violation of their basic rights.”

Ko Jimmy, a writer with a long history of pro-democracy activism, has served nearly two decades off and on in prison for his role in the 1988 uprising against military rule, as well as other protests. A warrant based on his social media posts was issued for his arrest shortly after the February 2021 coup, and he was arrested on October 24, 2021 after months in hiding. In January of this year, he was sentenced to death under the vague and broadly-worded counter-terrorism law. Phyo Zayar Thaw, a well-known hip-hop musician, had been arrested for protesting and served five years in prison from 2007 to 2011, before being elected to serve in the democratically-elected government’s parliament in 2015. In 2021, he participated in protests against the coup and was arrested in November under the same terrorism charges as Ko Jimmy. The men’s appeals were denied in early June, meaning that they have exhausted all legal avenues to stay their executions.

Within a few months of the military coup in February 2021, Myanmar became one of the top jailers of writers globally, implementing a systematic crackdown on the vocal creative community, described in PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index and its December 2021 report “Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup.” Hundreds of people have been charged under the counter-terrorism law and 73 currently face capital punishment in the country, including writer and activist Wai Moe Naing. Over the past year and a half, numerous groups have documented thousands of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by the junta that took power in February 2021. In August 2021, the military amended the 2014 counter-terrorism law that the two men were sentenced under to allow further prison sentences and expand the actions that could be charged under it—including participating in a protest. Because both men were arrested later in 2021 in townships under martial law, they were tried on these baseless terrorism charges in military tribunals, which are infamous for secretive and specious trials that nearly always guarantee conviction. For more on PEN America’s advocacy work on Myanmar, click here.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.