Updated at 11:00 a.m. EST on 2012-08-28
Two local United Nations staff sentenced to prison for their alleged involvement in ethnic violence in western Burma were refused the right to attorneys who allegedly faced threats during their trial that was closed to the families of the accused, according to one family member.
A court in Maungdaw, in Rakhine state, on Friday sentenced Maung Khin Maung, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to three years in jail and his brother Maung Khin Shwe, with the World Food Program (WFP), to two years imprisonment, their brother Maung Khin Win told RFA.
The specific charges they faced were not immediately clear, but the two brothers and another U.N.-linked worker faced charges that included arson, the inciting of hatred and violence between Muslim Rohinyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and carrying an illegal amount of foreign currency, according to various reports.
The June violence left more 80 people dead and thousands of homes burned to the ground. Human rights groups say around 100,000 people were displaced during the conflict.
Maung Khin Win said that his family and his brothers’ attorneys had been denied access to the men during their trial.
"Neither family members nor lawyers were present at the trial. When I approached the window to the courtroom, I was told to move away and I couldn't hear anything from inside,” Maung Khin Win said.
“The trial was to be held in Maungdaw, so I had hired a lawyer from [nearby] Buthitaung to go. He went there [ahead of the trial] but he said he couldn't do anything. He went there for a couple of days to inquire, but left without telling why,” he said.
“At that time we couldn't travel to Maungdaw, so we were unable to communicate with him.”
Maung Khin Win said that he immediately hired two lawyers from Rangoon for 400,000 kyat (U.S. $460), agreeing to give them 110,000 kyat (U.S. $126) as a deposit.
He said the two lawyers took over the case as soon as they arrived at the Maungdaw court, but were unable to have access to the defendants.
“They were at the court for about half an hour before leaving for a guesthouse,” he said.
“They told me not to tell anybody they were staying at the guesthouse and said they couldn’t do anything for now because they were concerned for their safety. The next morning they left for Sittwe,” the capital of Rakhine state.
The Burmese independent Weekly Eleven newspaper reported that the staffers were found guilty of inciting violence and promoting hatred between Buddhists and Muslims, citing anonymous court sources.
The third unidentified staffer for an organization paired with the U.N. is believed to have been sentenced to six years in prison for arson.
Maung Khin Win said that his brothers were innocent of the charges they were convicted of and had been locked in their U.N. offices when violence erupted, out of concern for their safety.
“When the unrest began on [June 8], they both were in the UNHCR office, located between Maungdaw and Buthitaung. They were sent back home at about 4:00 pm in an office vehicle and stayed at the house after that,” he said.
Maung Khin Win said that later, the men visited their family store together, but that there was no violence in their area and that his brothers had not been implicated in anything until their arrest.
“My brothers were not involved in the unrest—not involved in trying to resolve it or anything,” he said.
“The whole time they were in the U.N. office while the unrest took place. They weren't allowed to leave the office due to the unrest.”
Maung Khin Win said that when the authorities came to arrest his brothers at Maung Khin Maung’s home on June 12, they had no weapons and nobody other than the immediate family was present.
He said the officers claimed that they only wanted to question the brothers, not arrest them.
“They were detained for two nights at the Buthitaung police station and sent to the immigration and border police. They were detained there for a month, before beginning their trial on July 9,” Maung Khin Win said.
He said that the family was in possession of 350 Bangladeshi taka (U.S. $4.30), which they had officially been given by the U.N. office to travel across the border to Bangladesh for medical treatment. He said that their mother had recently undergone surgery and that Maung Khin Maung suffers from hepatitis.
“The accusations against them were false—the time, the place and the acts they were accused of. We have a witness who can testify that my brother wasn't even in town on the day they accused him of inciting violence,” he said.
“They both were on duty and went to the places they were assigned to [outside of town]. WFP also provided a letter confirming his assignment and where he was on the day in question.”
Maung Khin Win said that he had visited his brothers over the weekend, but neither spoke much about the prison conditions because they were concerned about the health of their mother.
But he said that “both had lost weight” and that he had brought them vitamins.
Maung Khin Win said that his brothers had been the family’s sole breadwinners. Without their help, he said, their mother would be unable to receive treatment and the livelihood of the family was thrown into question.
“The wife of Maung Khin Maung just gave birth a week ago,” he said.
“My two brothers are taking care of the family now and we all depend on them for survival. Due to the conviction, the plan for my mother to get treatment in Bangladesh is no longer possible.”
Maung Khin Win said the U.N. had pledged to do its best to help the family, but it was unclear what would happen next.
Aye Win, the press officer for the U.N.’s Rangoon branch, told RFA that his office was still making inquiries about the brothers and their conviction.
"We were not present at the court room and so we don't have the details. We are still speaking with the authorities,” he said.
Aye Win noted that United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Resident Representative Ashok Nigam had welcomed the release of two other U.N. staffers last week, but called on the government to release the rest of the organization’s workers.
Burma media reports say authorities last week released two people working for the U.N. and four working for Doctors Without Borders (RSF).
But RSF and the U.N. said last week that they both have two employees who are currently in custody and the WFP is also believed to have staff who have been detained, though the organization has provided no details about them.
Humanitarian groups say that at least 12 local staff employed by international aid groups were detained by the government in June for suspected involvement in the unrest. Six have so far been released.
Reported by Ingjin Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version stated that U.N. Press Officer Aye Win had welcomed the release of two other U.N. staffers last week. The statement was made by UNDP Resident Representative Ashok Nigam.