Courts in military-ruled Myanmar delivered a devastating blow Tuesday to the nation's pro-democracy movement, sentencing two dozen activists to harsh prison terms that will keep them behind bars long past a 2010 election.
Fourteen members of the Generation 88 Students group were sentenced to prison terms of 65 years each, and a labor activist, Su Su Nway, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years. Ten people allied with Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy got jail terms of eight to 24 years.
Many of the activists were involved in protests last year that led to huge pro-democracy demonstrations that the army put down by force. According to U.N. estimates, at least 31 people were killed and thousands of demonstrators were detained. Many fled the country or went underground.
Most of the sentences were handed down in closed-court sessions. The lengths of the terms suggest the junta will pay little heed to calls from the U.N. and many Western nations to make its self-styled transition to democracy more fair and inclusive.
Sending a signal
Amnesty International said the court actions were "a powerful reminder that Myanmar's military government is ignoring calls by the international community to clean up its human rights record."
"This sentencing sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate views contrary to its own," the group said in a statement.
Amnesty and other international human rights groups say the junta holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007 — before the pro-democracy demonstrations.
The prisoners include Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest — as she has been on and off since 1989.
The European Union said Monday that the multiparty elections scheduled for 2010 will be seen as illegitimate unless the junta frees all political prisoners. Suu Kyi's party won the most seats in a 1990 election, but the military refused to let it take power.
The junta announced the 2010 election as part of its "road map to democracy." Opposition groups and other critics dismiss it as a sham meant to perpetuate military rule. The military has held absolute power in the Southeast Asian nation since 1962.
Tuesday's harshest sentences went to members of the 88 Generation Students group, including five women.
Many of the group's members were at the forefront of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was halted by the military. They resumed political activities after being freed, spearheading protests against the junta.
"I heard from sources close to the prison that my son and 13 others were given 65-year prison sentences this morning in a closed-door trial," said Nyunt Nyunt Oo, mother of 31-year-old Pandeik Tun. "No family members or defense lawyers were present."
Among those sentenced were husband-and-wife activists Nilar Thein and Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Jimmy, and Mie Mie, a female activist often shown in photos at the forefront of protests.
Most of the 88 Generation members were arrested on Aug. 21, 2007, for protesting a fuel-price hike, while others were arrested after rallies led by Buddhist monks that were violently suppressed in September 2007.
Nyunt Nyunt Oo said her son and others were sentenced under various charges — including a law calling for a prison term of up to 20 years for anyone who demonstrates, makes speeches or writes statements undermining government stability.
She said other charges included having links to illegal groups and violating restrictions on foreign currency, video and electronic communications.
Asked if an appeal was planned, Nyunt Nyunt Oo said, "I don't think any effort will make a difference because the judgment is one-sided and this was what the authorities had decided to do."
Labor activist sentenced
In a separate hearing at Insein Prison, labor activist and National League for Democracy member Su Su Nway was sentenced to 12 1/2 years for her political activities, said Nyan Win, a party spokesman.
Su Su Nway served nine months in prison in 2005-2006 for labor activism. She protested oil price hikes in Yangon in August 2007 and escaped arrest when a protest was crushed Aug. 28. Video broadcast worldwide showed fellow protesters protecting Su Su Nway as pro-government forces moved in.
She was arrested a year ago as she tried to paste up a leaflet near a Yangon hotel during the visit of a U.N. human rights investigator.
Nyan Win also said 10 party members from Bogalay township in the Irrawaddy Delta received prison sentences Tuesday ranging from eight to 24 years.
On Monday, a court sentenced a blogger to 20 1/2 years in jail for his Internet activities, and a poet was sentenced to two years in prison for concealing the text of an anti-government slogan in one of his works.