Myanmar junta jailed monk during visit of UN human rights envoy

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Myanmar jailed monk during UN envoy’s visit

YANGON, Myanmar — A Buddhist monk in Myanmar was quietly sentenced to seven years in prison during the visit of a United Nations envoy, who had little positive to say about the junta’s progress on human rights, a lawyer said Saturday.

The sentencing of the monk on Wednesday also came after four activists were ordered to serve prison terms with hard labor on Monday, the day that U.N. envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana arrived in the country to assess the human rights situation.

During his five-day trip, the ruling military further refused him permission to see detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as on his two previous visits.

Opposition figures say the latest jailings illustrate the continuation of human rights violations, the lack of an independent judiciary and the junta’s disregard for the demands of the United Nations.

A court sentenced monk Gaw Thita to seven years’ imprisonment, saying he was guilty of violating immigration laws by taking a trip to Taiwan last year, said Aung Thein, a lawyer known for defending political activists. Gaw Thita was also convicted of unlawful association and failing to declare possession of foreign currency.

The monk had a valid passport for traveling to Taiwan and committed no known immigration violation, the lawyer said. He was jailed in August upon his return from Taiwan with a group of other monks. It is common for monks to take overseas trips for religious reasons.

It was not immediately clear why the monk faced such a harsh penalty, and whether authorities suspected he was involved in political activism. Members of the Buddhist clergy were in the vanguard of mass pro-democracy protests in 2007.

“Myanmar doesn’t have an independent judicial system. The courts are passing judgments based on the charges put up by the prosecution rather than on legal facts,” said Aung Thein.

Quintana gave a glum assessment as his visit ended Friday. As well as being barred access to Suu Kyi, he said senior junta officials he met gave no indication of when a general election planned for this year would take place, or when an election law guiding it would be passed. It will be Myanmar’s first election in two decades.

Quintana said the junta is holding almost 2,200 political prisoners and reiterated U.N. demands that all be released and allowed to take part in the election.

“I have not received any indication that the government is willing to release all prisoners of conscience,” he told reporters before leaving. “The government of Myanmar does not accept there are any prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”

Quintana said he met 15 political prisoners during visits to three prisons, including activists, journalists, community leaders from the Shan ethnic minority and Muslim minority and political party members.

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