Illegal Walkie-Talkies and Other ‘Crimes’ in Authoritarian Societies

To many people it might sound farcical: the arrest of a national political leader on a criminal charge of possessing unregistered walkie-talkies, simple two-way hand-held communicators available for less than $30 on Amazon.

But that is what Myanmar’s resurgent military junta used to justify seizing power in a Feb. 1 coup and arresting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, who now risks a three-year prison term for having failed to properly register her walkie-talkies. Protests in Myanmar over the military’s actions have now roiled the country.

Rights activists say the walkie-talkie prosecution may signal a new low in the lengths that anti-democratic leaders will go to crush a perceived threat. But infractions that seem inane to freer societies — or seemingly inane evidence used to press serious charges — are often used by authoritarian governments around the world.

Here are a few examples from recent years:

Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, was ordered imprisoned for more than two years last week after a court ruled he had repeatedly violated parole by failing to report properly to the authorities in person — while recovering in Germany from poisoning that he and Western leaders have called a Kremlin assassination plot. He was comatose for two weeks and under medical treatment for much longer.

Mr. Navalny’s incarceration sidelined a critic who has long vexed President Vladimir V. Putin.

In a further sign of the Kremlin’s growing intolerance, a Russian court on Wednesday sentenced the editor of a popular news website to 25 days in jail for having retweeted a joking reference to an anti-Kremlin protest publicized by Mr. Navalny.

Nowhere is it more dangerous to speak or share words deemed defamatory to a monarchy than in Thailand, where a notorious law known as Section 112 of the criminal code has been increasingly used to crush antigovernment sentiment.

The law, which makes it a crime to criticize the royal family, was used in January to punish a one-time civil servant with more than 43 years in prison — the longest sentence yet for a violation. In the view of the court, the sentence was merciful to the defendant, Anchan Preelert, who could have been given 87 years; the punishment was cut in half because she had pleaded guilty.

She had been accused in 2015 of using social media to disseminate audio and video recordings seen as critical of then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father, who was the longest-reigning monarch in the world when he died in 2016.

In June of 2009, Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist for Newsweek, was among hundreds of people in Iran imprisoned in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election. His prison interrogator accused him of espionage for the West, citing among other things a satirical interview he gave to “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central while reporting from Tehran.

Mr. Bahari was held for 118 days, often blindfolded. His story became the plot for a film titled “Rosewater,” a reference to the cologne Mr. Bahari had smelled on the interrogator.

In Saudi Arabia, where a severe interpretation of Islamic law has landed many advocates of free expression and women’s rights in prison, one of the most publicized cases concerned the prosecution of a writer, Raif Badawi, whose blog posts critical of the kingdom’s religious establishment were deemed insulting.

He was sentenced in 2014 to a 10-year prison term, a large fine and a public flogging of 1,000 lashes with a cane, to be administered in 20 periodic batches of 50 lashes each. International outrage at the punishment helped pressure the Saudis into halting the flogging after the first batch in January of 2015.

But Mr. Badawi, who received numerous freedom awards including the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2015, remains in prison.

While visiting North Korea with a tour group in January of 2016, Otto F. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was imprisoned on charges that he had sought to steal a poster from his hotel.

Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, a disproportionate punishment widely seen as an effort by North Korea to send a political message and gain some leverage with the United States. After the North Korean authorities broadcast Mr. Warmbier’s tearful apology on state TV, they held him largely incommunicado for 17 months.

When North Korea then freed him, in what it called a humanitarian gesture, he had suffered brain damage and was in a coma from which he never emerged. He was flown home to the United States and died shortly afterward. Mr. Warmbier’s parents said his North Korean captors had tortured him.

There were no foul-mouthed insults. But that did not stop the police in Zimbabwe from arresting three women members of the political opposition on Feb. 1 on charges of using language deemed by the officers to be illegal.

The women, including a member of Parliament, were seized after they had followed a police vehicle holding suspects from an antigovernment demonstration in Harare, the capital. It was not clear precisely what the Harare police found to be criminally offensive in the women’s remarks.

According to a police statement, the women had demanded release of the suspects to ensure the police would not infect them with Covid-19 while in custody.

Jeffrey Moyo and Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.

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