Canada and its allies are condemning the execution of four pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, including a former member of parliament, in the Southeast Asian nation’s first executions in decades.

In a joint statement Monday, Global Affairs Canada said the killings were “reprehensible acts of violence that further exemplify the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”

Canada, along with the High Representative on behalf of the European Union and the foreign ministers of seven other nations, called for the release of “all those unjustly detained” and expressed support for the Myanmar people’s “aspirations for freedom and democracy.” 

“Our thoughts and condolences are with the bereaved families and loved ones as they grieve those unjustly put to death. We remember and mourn all lives lost in Myanmar in the aftermath of the coup,” the statement concluded. 

Myanmar’s military junta accused the four activists of helping to carry out “terror acts.”

Sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April, the four men had been accused of helping militias to fight the army that seized power in a coup last year and unleashed a bloody crackdown on its opponents.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration outlawed by the ruling junta, condemned the executions and called for international action against the junta.

“Extremely saddened … condemn the junta’s cruelty,” Kyaw Zaw, the spokesman of the NUG president’s office, told Reuters in a message. “The global community must punish their cruelty.”

Among those executed were democracy figure Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Jimmy, and former lawmaker and hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.

Kyaw Min Yu, 53, and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a 41-year-old ally of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, lost their appeals against the sentences in June. The two others executed were Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.

Kyaw Min Yu, a pro-democracy activist, arrives at Yangon airport in 2012, welcomed by his wife and daughter after being released from a prison. (File photo/The Associated Press)

“These executions amount to arbitrary deprivation of lives and are another example of Myanmar’s atrocious human rights record,” said Erwin Van Der Borght, regional director of rights group Amnesty International.

More on death row

“The four men were convicted by a military court in highly secretive and deeply unfair trials. The international community must act immediately as more than 100 people are believed to be on death row after being convicted in similar proceedings.”

Thazin Nyunt Aung, the wife of Phyo Zeyar Thaw, said she had not been told of her husband’s execution. Other relatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

“My heart goes out to their families, friends and loved ones and indeed all the people in Myanmar who are victims of the junta’s escalating atrocities,” the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a statement.

WATCH | Myanmar junta accuse 4 rights activists of ‘terror acts’:

Myanmar’s military government executes 4 pro-democracy activists

Four pro-democracy activists have been executed by the ruling military in Myanmar. It’s prompted cries of outrage from international leaders, and calls for action to remove the military government.

The men had been held in the colonial-era Insein prison and a person with knowledge of the events said their families visited it last Friday. Only one relative was allowed to speak to the detainees via the Zoom online platform, the source added.

Myanmar’s state media reported the executions on Monday and junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun later confirmed the executions to the Voice of Myanmar. Neither gave details of timing.

Previous executions in Myanmar have been by hanging.

An activist group, the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), said Myanmar’s last judicial executions were in the late 1980s.

Junta defends death penalty

Last month junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun defended the death penalty, saying it was justified and used in many countries.

“At least 50 innocent civilians, excluding security forces, died because of them,” he told a televised news conference.

“How can you say this is not justice?” he asked. “Required actions are needed to be done in the required moments.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), appealed in a letter in June to junta leader Min Aung Hlaing not to carry out the executions, relaying deep concern among Myanmar’s neighbours.

“Not even the previous military regime, which ruled between 1988 and 2011, dared to carry out the death penalty against political prisoners,” said Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago, chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

Elsewhere, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the executions went against Japan’s repeated calls for a peaceful resolution and release of detainees, and would further isolate Myanmar, and the U.S. embassy in Yangon condemned the executions of “pro-democracy leaders and elected officials.”

As well, China’s foreign ministry urged all parties in Myanmar to properly resolve conflicts within its constitutional framework.

Myanmar has been in chaos since last year’s coup, with conflict spreading nationwide after the army crushed mostly peaceful protests in cities.

“For more than a year now, Myanmar’s military authorities have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and a whole gamut of human rights violations,” Van Der Borght added.

“The military will only continue to trample on people’s lives if they are not held accountable.”

The AAPP says more than 2,100 people have been killed by the security forces since the coup. The junta says that figure is exaggerated.

The true picture of violence has been hard to assess as clashes have spread to more remote areas where ethnic minority insurgent groups are also fighting the military.