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JUNTA HANDS DOWN RIDICULOUS PRISON SENTENCES IN LATEST CRACKDOWN ON FREE EXPRESSION

What do you get for helping survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which tore up Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta in May? Extreme jail time, apparently. A popular comedian active in Burma's democracy movement was sentenced to 45 years in jail on 21 November for criticising the junta's slow response to the cyclone, videotaping the damage and organising his own relief efforts - what IFEX members are calling a "historical low point" for free expression in Burma.

Just weeks before UN Secretary General's planned visit, Zarganar, Burma's Charlie Chaplin, was sentenced to 45 years for "creating dissatisfaction towards state and government" and violating the Electronics Act, which regulates electronic communications.

Sports columnist Zaw Thet Htwe and Thant Zin Aung were sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment each, and Tin Maung Aye received 29 years in prison, for similar roles in the cyclone relief efforts. All four activists still face charges in trials happening as early as this week.

Human Rights Watch described the jailing of Zarganar (which means "Tweezers") as "a cruel joke on the Burmese people," adding that it was "a bigger joke on those abroad who still think ignoring repression in Burma will bring positive change."

An outspoken satirist of the junta, Zarganar was arrested in June, shortly after he gave interviews to overseas news outlets such as the BBC, criticising the junta's reponse to the disaster. The day after his arrest, state-controlled media published warnings against sending video footage of relief work to foreign news agencies, says CPJ.

The government appears to be expediting the trials of journalists, lawyers, poets and activists, many involved in the relief efforts or last year's monk-led protests, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than 100 activists have been sentenced to harsh prison terms in the past two weeks, including 65 years to the key members of the so-called 88 Generation of activists, and 68 years to Ashin Gambira, the leader of the monks' alliance that led last year's anti-government uprising.

"The sentences we have witnessed in Burma this month are nothing less than an assault on free expression," said CPJ. "That it should stem from reporting in the public interest is a shocking indictment of the ruling military junta."

According to IFEX members, the disproportionate punishments send out a clear message that the junta will not tolerate opposition in the lead-up to their alleged "democratic" 2010 elections. And many more cases are lined up - including against magazine editor Zaw Thet Htwe, human rights defender U Myint Aye and activist monk U Gambira.

Amnesty International says the junta holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007 - before the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Often, the trials are happening in special courts based in prisons, "devoid of any form of openness or transparency," say ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the defendants' families and lawyers are rarely notified about the trials and witnesses for the defence are not allowed.

Nor does the junta care what the international community thinks. The wave of trials has been condemned by the UN, as well as the United States and European countries, but critics are saying their condemnation isn't enough.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, Zarganar told the news magazine "the Irrawaddy," "I am not happy with the UN. Why are they so concerned with the government's endorsement of their relief work? They should have taken more risks."

Human Rights Watch and RSF are calling upon the UN Security Council to address the deteriorating human rights situation in Burma and expand existing international sanctions on the military government and its leaders. RSF is also calling on the EU to create new, targeted sanctions for the head of the judicial system, as well as the judges who took part in the trials.

RSF and the Burma Media Association also support the call made by U Win Tin, a leading journalist and member of the opposition National League for Democracy, to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to go to Burma under the current circumstances.

Meanwhile, ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship note that the states with the largest influence on the Burmese junta - China, India and Thailand - have remained silent. They are urging these countries and others in ASEAN to raise these abuses with the Burmese authorities. They are also demanding that European Union member states use the upcoming 11th EU-China Summit in Lyon, France, to bring up these issues with the Chinese government.

Visit these links:
- ARTICLE 19/Index: http://tinyurl.com/6zfeas
- CPJ: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/98774/
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29379
- Human Rights Watch (email): hrwpress (@) hrw.org
- International PEN: http://tinyurl.com/69vczf
- Mizzima News: http://tinyurl.com/588bj8
- "The Irrawaddy": http://tinyurl.com/5u55rj
- IFEX Burma page: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/145/
(Photo: Comedian and military junta opponent Zarganar organises relief supplies for Cyclone Nargis survivors in May. Jules Motte/ABACAUSA)

(26 November 2008)

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