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A court in northern Shan State on Friday sentenced two Kachin pastors to harsh multi-year prison sentences after they were caught up in conflict in Muse Township, with the two men found guilty of all charges brought against them, including “unlawful association.”
The Lashio Township Court sentenced the two pastors, DD Nawng Lat and Mangjaw Gam Seng, to four years and three months, and two years and three months, respectively.
Both were charged under the controversial Unlawful Association Act and the Imports and Exports Act, with DD Nawng Lat hit with an additional two-year sentence under section 500 of the Penal Code, a criminal defamation charge. Their sentences will include time served since they were charged in January 2017.
The military and the Muse district police filed cases against DD Nawng Lat and Mangjaw Gam Seng in January, accusing the men of recruiting for the Northern Alliance coalition of ethnic armed groups; meeting multiple times with members of the Kachin Independence Army; and of spreading false news and propaganda to the media in an attempt to defame the military.
Human rights groups and the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), of which the two men are members, have criticised the case from the outset. They say the prosecution is wholly unwarranted, and argue that the two men were simply helping collect information on human rights abuses in an active conflict zone, including an alleged airstrike by the Burmese military against a church in Muse. The additional defamation charge brought against DD Nawng Lat was the result of his giving a phone interview to the Voice of America news outlet in early December.
The general secretary of the KBC, Reverend Samson Hkalam, said his organisation was shocked by the verdict, adding that the KBC would send a letter of appeal to the Union cabinet.
“I think it is a harsh sentence for them. They told the reporters true information and they didn’t intend to defame the military. It is a threat to the Christian religious community. We [KBC] will send a letter to the leaders regarding the verdict,” he told DVB on Friday.
DD Nawng Lat, 67, and Mangjaw Gam Sen, 35, went missing in late December but it was not until 19 January that it was revealed that they were being held in military custody. The lengthy period in which their whereabouts were unknown, and the allegations themselves, put their case on human rights groups’ radar from an early stage.
“These two men are looking at years in jail for doing what the Myanmar government should be doing anyway, standing up for the human rights of innocent people. Today’s verdict is another reminder that in Myanmar, human rights defenders have a choice: silence or a sentence,” said David Baulk, a Burma human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, which has followed the case closely.
“How many more human rights defenders have to be locked up before the world realises that the Myanmar military have no intention of being held to account for their crimes?” he told DVB. “There are people who believe that the military is earnest in its rhetoric about changing its ways. They would do well to look at the list of people who are in jail for speaking truth to power.”