YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military junta sentenced at least 11 dissidents involved in monk-led protests last year to 65 years in jail on Tuesday, opposition figures said, a major blow to the pro-democracy movement before a 2010 election.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) and exiled dissidents in Thailand said the group, all of whom played a role in another brutally suppressed uprising in 1988, were sentenced at a closed-door hearing in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison.
The group included Ko Jimmy and his wife, Nilar Thein, who had to abandon her four-month-old daughter when she went into hiding during the August 2007 crackdown over fuel price protests.
Nilar Thein was arrested in September after more than a year on the run.
The United Nations says at least 31 people were killed when the former Burma’s military rulers sent in troops to end the mass demonstrations led by columns of shaven-headed Buddhist monks, the biggest challenge to military rule in 20 years.
Nine other democracy activists from the so-called “88 Generation Students Group” were sentenced to six months in jail last month for contempt of court when they tried to argue their trials should be not be held behind closed doors.
Their defense lawyer, Aung Thein, has since also been sentenced to jail for contempt in an apparent move by the junta to deny all legal rights to political prisoners, of whom human rights groups say there are more than 2,000.
The prisoners’ families were also barred from Tuesday’s sentencing, in contravention of a convention in Myanmar that they be allowed to attend.
“According to normal legal practice, they have the right to be defended and the right to appeal and their families have the right to attend,” NLD spokesman Nyan Win, a lawyer, said.
“Their families were deprived of this right and, with their defense lawyers behind bars, they won’t be able to make the appeal,” he said. “These are the latest indicators of the worsening situation in the judiciary system in our country.”
Myanmar has been under military rule of one form or another since 1962, although the generals have scheduled elections in 2010 as one of the final stages in a seven-step “roadmap to democracy.”
Western governments and the domestic opposition have derided the process as a charade, especially since a new constitution it spawned in May makes little dent in the military’s grip on power.
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait