Politics

Arizona Republican Defies Whole House on Plea for Jailed Journalists

Andy Biggs has voted consistently on issues concerning international jurisdictions

Rep. Andy Biggs was the only vote against a resolution condemning the jailing of Reuters journalists in Myanmar. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Fully 394 members of the House voted Thursday for a resolution calling for the release from jail of two Reuters reporters imprisoned in Myanmar on charges that are widely viewed as fraudulent.

One member of Congress voted against it.

The lone dissent from the otherwise unanimous call for justice was Arizona Republican Andy Biggs, who objected to the measure’s apparent endorsement of prosecuting the case in the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.

Although Biggs stood alone on this vote , his antipathy to the court, as well as to the United Nations, is shared by a handful of other Republicans in Congress who represent a strong strain among conservatives and libertarians nationwide.

A Year in Jail for Reporting

Authorities in Myanmar arrested the reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, one year ago this week, and they have been imprisoned since. They had been investigating the murder of 10 Rohingya men and boys in a small village in that country. The journalists were convicted of possessing state secrets and sentenced to seven years in jail.

During their trial, a witness for the prosecution admitted the reporters were entrapped. They were handed supposedly secret government documents that they never asked for in a restaurant one day and then were promptly taken away by police.

A day after the anniversary of the reporters’ arrest, the House vote would draw attention to their plight. Just two days before the vote, Time magazine had honored the Reuters reporters and other journalists as “persons of the year” for 2018 and had dubbed them “guardians” of truth.

The resolution calling attention to the reporters’ plight, by Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, advocates their release and decries the Myanmar government for committing what the resolution calls genocide against the Rohingya people. And the measure urges that the perpetrators of these crimes be brought to justice.

Ceding Sovereignty?

Daniel Stefanski, Biggs’s communications director said in a statement that the congressman supports the thrust of the resolution. Biggs believes “the Burmese military’s continuing oppression of the Rohingya is inhumane,” and the imprisonment of the Reuters journalists is “outrageous,” Stefanski said.

What’s more, he said, Biggs “calls upon the Executive Branch of the United States to use maximum diplomatic pressure to end the genocide and demand the release of the two journalists.”

However, Stefanski suggested that Biggs could not stomach references in the resolution to U.N. assistance in fighting genocide in Myanmar and the measure’s call for prosecution of atrocities against the Rohingya by “applicable international criminal statutes and conventions.” The freshman lawmaker considered it an apparent reference to the International Criminal Court, a tribunal that handles cases such as war crimes or genocide when national courts are unable or unwilling to adjudicate them or when the U.N. Security Council or individual nations make referrals.

“The U.S. should not cede its leverage and sovereignty to international institutions, particularly the International Criminal Court of which we are not a member state,” Stefanski said.

Distrust of international bodies such as the Netherlands court has become something of an article of faith in certain conservative circles. Thursday was the latest manifestation of that skepticism on Capitol Hill, and it was not the first time Biggs was in the middle of it.

Against the Grain

Despite Biggs’s short time in the House, Thursday’s vote was the second time he had defied his colleagues on a vote pertaining to the bloodletting in Myanmar.

Last December, Biggs joined with just two other members — splitting with 423 of their colleagues — by voting against another resolution by New York Democrat Joseph Crowley that expressed, among other things, congressional condemnation for the mass killing of Rohingya people in Myanmar.

Fellow Republicans Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina were the only other “no” votes a year ago.

Stefanski did not immediately respond to a request for an explanation of last December’s vote. But Biggs in all likelihood opposed the earlier Myanmar resolution for reasons similar to this week’s rationale: because of his opposition to its call to support a U.N. fact-finding commission to Burma and other references to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Biggs has cosponsored a bill by Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers that would terminate U.S. membership in the United Nations — a measure that has eight other cosponsors.

Likewise, Biggs cosponsored a measure by Republican Brian Babin of Texas that would end U.S. financial support for the United Nations. Babin’s bill is also cosponsored by Republican Tom Garrett of Virginia.

The year before Biggs came to Congress, when he served in the Arizona Senate, he had drawn attention to himself on yet another occasion for bucking the majority.

As president of the Arizona Senate, he had temporarily blocked that body from considering reinstating KidsCare, a federally funded healthcare initiative for low-income children. The legislation eventually cleared with bipartisan support.

Biggs will be back in the next session of Congress. He won re-election with about 60 percent of the vote in a district that is reliably Republican.

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