BANGKOK (Reuters) - The sentencing of 40 activists to lengthy prison terms in army-ruled Myanmar is part of a campaign to eradicate dissent ahead of elections in 2010, rights campaigners said Wednesday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said they were among more than 70 monks, nuns, journalists and activists who faced trial in recent weeks for their role in anti-junta protests last year.
“Burma’s leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms,” Elaine Pearson, the group’s deputy Asia director, said.
Among those sentenced in closed-door hearings this week were 14 leaders of a 1988 student uprising who received jail terms of 65 years for their role in the 2007 protests.
They included Ko Jimmy and his wife, Nilar Thein, who had to abandon her four-month-old daughter when she went into hiding. She was arrested in September after more than a year on the run.
Prominent labour activist Su Su Nway was also jailed for 12- years after her arrest in November last year for distributing anti-junta leaflets.
Five monks who led the mass demonstrations, the biggest challenge to military rule in 20 years, were given 6- years in prison. The United Nations says at least 31 people were killed when troops crushed the protests in September last year.
The regime has ordered the courts to finish the trials by the end of November and moved hearings inside the notorious Insein prison, lawyers in Yangon said.
Some defence lawyers have been arrested in an apparent move by the junta to deny legal rights to political prisoners, of whom human rights groups say there are more than 2,000.
“Prosecuting lawyers who defend activists shows that the generals don’t want to leave anything at these trials to chance,” Pearson said.
Myanmar has been under military rule of one form or another since 1962, although the generals have scheduled elections in 2010 as one of the final stages in a seven-step “roadmap to democracy.”
Western governments and the domestic opposition have derided the process as a charade, especially since a new constitution it spawned in May makes little dent in the military’s grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon)
Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould