YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s junta has sentenced nine democracy activists to 65 years each in jail for their involvement in last year’s mass protests against military rule, legal and family sources said Saturday.
The nine include Min Ko Naing, leader of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was brutally suppressed and the former Burma’s highest profile dissident after detained opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The ruling generals have given at least 60 dissidents hefty jail terms in the last two weeks, signaling a desire to eradicate political opposition before an election in 2010, the final stages of their seven-step “roadmap to democracy.”
Min Ko Naing and the other eight members of the “88 Generation Students” group were arrested in August last year when the protests, initially against soaring fuel and food prices, were in their infancy.
The protests quickly snowballed into the biggest challenge to military rule in 20 years.
The junta said nearly all of the 3,000 people detained during and after the protests were released. Human rights groups say as many as 700 remain behind bars.
Legal sources said courts had been ordered to work overtime and at weekends to clear the high number of outstanding cases.
“Some courts seated inside the Insein Central Prison are working today. It’s unprecedented in the 20 years that I’ve been working in the service,” a court official, who asked not to be named, said.
Insein is the prison compound in northern Yangon where most political prisoners are tried behind closed doors before being confined to Myanmar’s gulag.
“Many more activists are expected to be sentenced to various prison terms in the next few days as the courts have been instructed to expedite all pending cases,” the official added.
Information about the sentences is becoming harder to obtain as several defense lawyers working for the activists have also been jailed for contempt of court.
The United States, European Union and United Nations have all criticized the sentences and urged the junta to release the activists. By contrast, there has been little, if any, official comment from Myanmar’s neighbors.