A Burmese court has imprisoned two journalists for seven years in the latest of a wave of harsh prison sentences for democracy activists. The court sentenced Thet Zin, editor of Myanmar Nation, and Sein Win Maung, the paper’s manager, after convicting them under the country’s draconian press law.
They were sentenced under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act for being in possession of subversive documents, including a UN Special rapporteur’s human rights report on Burma.
Media and human rights groups condemned the sentence. “In the case of Thet Zin and Sein Win Maung, the judges have imposed the maximum penalty allowed under the press law,” said Reporters Without Borders. “What is the most shocking is that none of journalists, bloggers, poets, activists or monks who have recently been sentenced, committed a crime defined as such under Burmese law”, it added.
In the past month, over 100 people have received jail sentences of up to 70 years, amounting to at least eleven hundred years, according to one estimate. The trend is set to continue, according to Bo Kyi , co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, who notes that several hundred of the 1,037 people arrested for political activities over the past 15 months have yet to be tried.
The journalists’ convictions came on the same day that 13 members of the 88 Generation Students, which led the 1988 pro-democracy upsurge, were sentenced to six years for undermining stability. They were part of a 37-strong group prosecuted for their involvement in the nonviolent protests of September 2007.
“The saddest irony is that family members and friends finally felt relieved upon hearing of 7-year sentence handed down by junta’s kangaroo court because most of the high profile dissidents have been receiving average of 20 to 65 year prison sentences since early this month,” said Min Zin, a brother of Thet Zin and a Burmese journalist in exile.
Democracy activists in exile are concerned that almost all of the political prisoners are being transferred to prisons in remote areas. Not only do these areas have high rates of malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS, but the prisons will be largely inaccessible to the prisoners’ families on which they rely for food, medicine, and clothing.
The repression is also likely to scotch moves to engage the military junta and take advantage of the slight opening following Cyclone Nargis. “The regime’s ferocity,” the Washington Post recently noted, ” unexpected even by its dismal standards, came as something of an embarrassment to Western humanitarian groups, which have been revving up a campaign to convince the Obama administration that Burma’s regime is moderating and that engagement, rather than isolation, is the right policy.”