Seven Muslims in Burma have been charged with the murder of a Buddhist monk that fueled deadly communal riots two months ago in central Meikhtila city, lawyers said Tuesday.
Six of them face the death penalty if convicted in one of the most high profile cases since sectarian violence first flared nearly a year ago.
A seventh suspect, who is under 16 years old, will be tried in a juvenile court in connection with the murder of the monk identified as Thawbita who, according to reports, was pulled off his motorbike, attacked and burned on March 20.
If found guilty, the maximum sentence that could be imposed on the teenager is seven years in jail.
The masterminds of the alleged murder have not been held yet, lawyers said.
"The real four perpetrators [of the alleged crime] are on the run," lawyer Thein Than Oo told RFA's Burmese Service.
He said the suspects were charged under various laws, including the Criminal Procedure Code and Religious Crime Act.
The monk was among at least 43 people killed in a wave of violence stemming from a quarrel between a Buddhist couple and a Muslim goldsmith in his shop.
Last month the goldsmith was among three Muslims sentenced to 14 years in prison each for various offenses, including aggravated assault, attempted injury, and aiding and abetting crimes.
A total of 70 people have been held in connection with the Meikhtila violence, the Irrawaddy journal reported.
They are comprised of 28 Muslims and 42 Buddhists, it said.
Some rights groups have accused the Burmese security forces of standing by while Buddhist mobs rampaged through Meikhtila killing Muslims and driving many from their homes and businesses in the violence that also spread to areas north of Rangoon.
No Buddhists have been charged yet in relation to the unrest, according to reports.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said it was seriously concerned about a "lack of accountability for crimes committed against Muslim communities."
"The authorities need to demonstrate that investigations and prosecutions aren't discriminatory and are in line with international standards, but they aren't doing that," Matthew Smith, a researcher for the group, told the Associated Press.
"What we are seeing in Meikhtila is consistent with what we are seeing elsewhere in the country—a failure to bring perpetrators to account."
A verdict in the trial of the six adults is expected on Friday, Ye Aung Myint, Chief Justice of the Mandalay Region, told Agence France-Presse.
The Meikhtila violence was among a spate of communal riots between Muslims and Buddhists that have threatened to derail national reconciliation, which reformist Burmese President Thein Sein sees as central to achieving the country’s goal of democracy.
Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in 2011, freeing the country from decades of military misrule, but rolling back restrictions on rights such as the freedom of expression has allowed some long-hidden prejudices to resurface in Burmese society.
Last year, clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines broke out twice in Burma's Rakhine state, leaving at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless—mostly Rohingyas.
Just two weeks ago, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Oakkan—a town located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Rangoon—left one dead and nearly a dozen injured before order was restored by police firing warning shots over the heads of mobs. Two mosques were partially destroyed and dozens of homes and shops were burnt to the ground.
Burmese President Thein Sein on Monday assured the minority Muslims that their fundamental rights will be protected.
In a speech on state television, the reformist leader called for "peaceful coexistence" and "tolerance" among all communities in the mainly Buddhist country.
"Our government will take the most practical ways to protect the basic rights of Muslims who have been here for a long time," Thein Sein said, referring to the conflict in Rakhine state.
In the same breath, he said, the government "will never ignore the feelings and demands of the Rakhines."
Reported by Zin Mar Win for RFA's Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.