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Myanmar hands comedian 45-year prison term

Courts in military-ruled Myanmar handed long prison sentences Friday to a prominent Buddhist monk and a popular comedian who are active in the country's pro-democracy movement.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Courts in military-ruled Myanmar handed long prison sentences Friday to a prominent Buddhist monk and a popular comedian who are active in the country's pro-democracy movement, rounding out two weeks of an intensive judicial crackdown on activists.

At least 100 people have received prison sentences of two to 65 years since early November, with many being held for more than a year before being tried. Many of the trials were held in closed sessions, sometimes without defense lawyers or family present.

Comedian and activist Maung Thura — who is better known by his stage name, Zarganar — was sentenced to 45 years imprisonment for violations of the Electronics Act, which regulates all forms of electronic communication, said his lawyer, Khin Htay Kywe.

The comedian still faces other charges, she said.

Another lawyer said Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on various charges, including insulting religion, having links with illegal organizations and violating the Immigration Act. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the government.

The monk helped organize last year's mass pro-democracy demonstrations. He was previously sentenced to 56 years imprisonment on other charges, bringing his total sentence to 68 years.

Monks inspired and led pro-democracy demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the army in September last year. The authorities began their crackdown by raiding several monasteries in Yangon in the middle of the night and hauling away monks.

The wave of harsh sentences has been condemned worldwide by Western governments and human rights organizations, who charge that it makes a mockery of the ruling junta's professed plan to restore democracy with a 2010 election.

On Tuesday, five United Nations experts issued a statement in Geneva strongly condemning the "severe convictions and the unfair trials of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar."

Their statement from the U.N. human rights experts said they "demand that all detainees be retried in open hearings respecting fair trial standards and the immediate release of their defense counsels."

Those sentenced recently included some 70 members of the opposition National League for Democracy party of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Some of the most severe sentences were handed to 23 members of the 88 Generation Students group, veteran activists who have been spearheading nonviolent protests for the past several years.

Bloggers, musicians and poets have also been among the victims.

Hip-hop artist, political activists jailed
On Thursday, well-known hip-hop singer Zeyar Thaw, a member of the band "Acid," was jailed for six years, and 14 members of Suu Kyi's party got 2 1/2 years each for calling for her release on her birthday in June, party spokesman Nyan Win said.

Zeyar Thaw is thought to be a leader of Generation Wave, an illegal student group formed in the wake of last year's protests to carry on the struggle for democracy.

Zarganar was arrested in June after he gave interviews to foreign media in which he criticized the junta's slow response to the May cyclone that killed more than 84,000 people.

Three associates were tried with him. Sportswriter Zaw Thet Htwe and video journalist Thant Zin Aung were given 15 years each and face further charges, while Tin Maung Aye got 29 years, Zarganar's lawyer said.

Not the first arrest
Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested in 2003 for allegedly plotting to "overthrow the government through bombings and assassinations." He was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death but was later given a reduced sentence and released in 2005 after serving 18 months.

Zarganar has been imprisoned several times, and was held for three weeks for providing food and other necessities to Buddhist monks during last year's demonstrations.

The 47-year-old comedian is also a successful producer, director, writer and actor. He frequently upsets officials with his popular satirical jokes about his country's political, economic and social situation, and the junta banned him from making public performances in 2006 after he made remarks to foreign media that upset them.

Amnesty International 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 last year's pro-democracy demonstrations.

The prisoners include Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, as she has been for more than 13 of the past 19 years.