Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

UN experts condemn Burma trials

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Monks protest in Rangoon (Sept 2007)
Monks led pro-democracy protests in September 2007

A team of United Nations experts has condemned the trials of dozens of political activists in Burma.

The trials, conducted in great secrecy during the past week, have resulted in sentences of up to 65 years in prison.

Those sentenced include leaders of the 88 Generation students' movement and leaders of the monks' alliance that led last year's anti-government protest.

The UN team - which includes its human rights monitor for Burma - echoed similar condemnation by the US.

Burma's courts have been sentencing dissidents every day during the past week.

The courts, often operating from behind prison walls, have been so secretive that it is difficult to be sure how many people have been convicted.

Harsh punishment

The total is now certainly more than 80 - 23 of whom received sentences of 65 years in jail.

There is no obvious logic behind the harshness of the punishments.

The longest sentences were meted out for illegally using electronic media - an indication perhaps of the military's fear of the internet.

A blogger who posted irreverent cartoons of Burma's ruler, Than Shwe, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Monks protest in Rangoon (Sept 2007)
Last year's protests posed a major challenge to the military junta

A poet, who also mocked the military strongman, was sentenced to two. And Ashin Gambira, the Buddhist monk who led the mass uprising against the government last year, was sentenced to a relatively lenient 12 years in jail, although he still faces several more charges.

The trials have been widely condemned as unfair.

Defendants were given little opportunity to present evidence and when their lawyers complained they too were jailed.

Just as bad for the convicted activists is the decision to disperse them to prisons in remote parts of the country where their families will be unable to give them vital support like food and medicine and where mistreatment is less likely to be reported.

The scale and severity of these sentences suggest the military government is determined to crush all traces of opposition in the run-up to the election it plans to hold in two years' time.

The junta says the 2010 elections will be part of its "road map to democracy".

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

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