Myanmar court adds hard labour to punishment for six activists over Chinese embassy protest

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 3:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 4:22pm

A Myanmar court imposed new sentences with hard labour for six prominent activists who are already serving prison terms for political activities.

All six were charged in connection with a protest they attended last year outside the Chinese embassy to demand an investigation into the shooting death of an opponent of a Chinese-backed copper mine.

The court yesterday sentenced them to four years and four months imprisonment with hard labour.  “All six activists were sentenced to four years and four months  imprisonment each,” lawyer Robert San Aung, who represented five of the activists, said.

 He said the court found them guilty on charges including defying an order  to disperse, disrupting the duty of a civil servant and protesting without  permission.

The campaigners were arrested following December protests near the Chinese  embassy in Yangon calling for the closure of the mine venture in the central  town of Monywa, which has been dogged by complaints of land-grabbing and  environmental damage.

Protests in Yangon were sparked by the death of Khin Win, in her 50s, who was shot dead by police near the mine in December, during clashes with  demonstrators trying to stop the mine company from building a fence in territory disputed with local farmers.

 Authorities have yet to announce any prosecutions in the killing.

“The sentences are very unfair and we are dissatisfied with the verdict. This is a violation of citizens’ rights,” said one of the convicted activists, Naw Ohn Hla.

She said she would continue to fight for the rights of the people when she is freed.

“The government deliberately gives a lengthy prison sentence because they want to lock up activists during the election,” Naw Ohn Hla said, referring to general elections coming in November.

The Letpadaung mine - run by Chinese firm Wanbao as part of a joint  venture with a major Myanmar military conglomerate - has raised questions  about Myanmar’s reliance on investment from neighbouring China, which gave crucial political support to the former junta.

Police in March rejected a lawsuit by monks who suffered phosphorus burns  at the hands of officers when they protested against the Letpadaung mine in  2012.

After the six activists were jailed, the Swiss-based International Commission of Jurists condemned what it called “an unfair trial lasting less than five minutes”, and urged Myanmar authorities to drop the charges.

Myanmar emerged from a half-century of military rule with a new government in 2011 that has implemented several political and economic reforms. It freed many junta-era prisoners but has arrested hundreds of activists anew who are charged with breaking several criminal laws.

An independent political prisoner association has tallied 158 prisoners of conscience and 450 others facing trial in Myanmar for their political activities as of May.

Myanmar has earned international approval for political and economic  reforms since the end of outright army rule in 2011.

But rights groups and the opposition have raised fears that the reforms are  stalling, with arrests of dozens of protesters and signs of a squeeze on media freedoms.  

Robert San Aung said the activists had little faith in the country’s court  system, which was chronically undermined by decades of military control.

“They said they do not trust the judicial system here. They do not trust  the government either,” he said, adding they were unlikely to appeal.