Page last updated at 04:19 GMT, Thursday, 13 November 2008

Burmese jail sentences condemned

Monks protesting in Rangoon, Burma, on 26 September 2007

Human rights groups and Western governments have condemned the harsh sentences handed to pro-democracy activists in Burma.

Dissidents were this week given sentences of up to 65 years.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch deplored what they said were efforts to curb dissent ahead of planned elections.

Burma's military junta has cracked down harshly on dissidents since crushing monk-led protests in mid-2007.

At least 23 activists were each sentenced to 65 years in prison on Tuesday, while a leading blogger and a poet who wrote a coded criticism of junta leader Than Shwe were among six people sentenced to up to 20 years in jail on Monday.

Fourteen of those jailed on Tuesday are former students who were members of the "88 Generation", which led a major uprising 20 years ago that the military regime also suppressed.

The junta says that it will hold elections as part of its "road map to democracy" in 2010.

Opposition figures and governments, including the European Union say those elections will be meaningless when much of the opposition is behind bars.

Western worries

Reaction from the countries neighbouring Burma, and from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which it is a member, has been more muted.

Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms
Elaine Pearson,
Human Rights Watch

But US state department spokesman Robert Wood said: "The United States strongly condemns the Burmese regime's harsh sentencing of at least 30 political activists to between two and 65 years in prison.

"We also call on the regime to begin a genuine dialogue with democratic and ethnic minority representatives and to immediately release all Burma's over 2,000 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi and those convicted in recent days."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned" by the Burmese government's action and pleaded for all Burmese citizens to be allowed to participate freely in their country's political future.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called the trials "unfair".

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: "These last few weeks show a more concentrated crackdown on dissent clearly aimed at intimidating the population.

"Burma's leaders are clearing the decks of political activists before they announce the next round of sham political reforms."

Britain's junior foreign minister Bill Rammell said: "Those detained have done nothing other than exercise their right to express themselves and have at all times underlined their willingness to work with others for a better Burma."

Family support

Relatives of the detained said they would continue to support them.

"We understand and are proud for them although we cannot do anything right now. We are not frightened," said Amar Nyunt, 63, whose son Jimmy and daughter-in-law Nilar Thein were among those to receive 65-year jail terms.

She told Agence France-Presse news agency that she was caring for the jailed couple's 19-month-old daughter.

Sein Linn, 67, the father of Pannate Tun, another of the activists sentenced on Tuesday, told AFP that he fell ill after hearing of the punishment.

"I do not understand politics but I cannot afford to do anything apart from feel for him," he said.

Human Rights Watch said more than 70 dissidents - monks, nuns, journalists and labour activists - had been on trial over the past two weeks, mostly in secret hearings with family members barred, and in some cases with no legal representation.

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