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Harsh sentences for Burma rebels

By Jonathan Head
BBC South East Asia correspondent

Monks protesting in Rangoon, Burma, on 26 September 2007

Fourteen "88 Generation" activists in Burma have been given jail sentences of up to 65 years over their role in anti-government rallies last year.

Another 20 leaders from the group are still being tried on numerous charges which could result in sentences of up to 150 years each.

The military authorities have arrested hundreds of dissidents this year.

Since July they have been put dozens on trial under tightly restricted conditions.

Severe

No-one is under any illusions over how harshly Burma’s military government is willing to treat its opponents.

Even so, the sentences handed down on 14 activists on Tuesday are breathtakingly severe.

They were convicted of four counts of illegally using electronic media and given 15 years on each charge, plus five years for forming an illegal organisation - 65 years in total.

The defendants include Nilar Thein and her husband Ko Jimmy.

He was arrested along with other 88 Generation leaders after the first small protests against a dramatic fuel price rise in August last year, but Nilar Thein went into hiding - leaving their infant daughter with her parents - and was only caught two months ago.

Lawyers restricted

Among the activist leaders still standing trial are Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Kyi.

The trials were held inside Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, where the activists are being held, and the guilty verdicts were never really in doubt.

The defence lawyers were so tightly restricted in what they could do or say that in the end the activists stopped using them.

Still, the staggering length of these sentences does reinforce a very clear message - that Burma’s military rulers are no more prepared to tolerate opposition now than they have been throughout their half century in power.

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