Two imams have been sentenced to eight years in prison each over a fire at a mosque in Myanmar’s biggest city last year that killed 13 children and inflamed sectarian tensions despite police assurances that it was accidental.
The two, Zayar Phyo (also known as Noyora) and Khin Maung Aye (also known as Arsit), were convicted Thursday by the Botahtaung Township Court of criminal negligence for the fire that police said was started by an electrical fault.
Defense lawyer Aung Myint said the two planned to appeal because they had not set the blaze, which ripped through the mosque compound where children were boarding on April 2, 2013.
The fire, which came on the heels of sectarian violence in central Myanmar’s Meikhtila city, prompted rumors and accusations that it had been set by arsonists, despite police announcements that it had been set off by the electrical fault.
In response to the suspicions, the Yangon government formed an inquiry commission to investigate the blaze, which concluded that the catalyst for the fire was an overheated power transformer.
The two imams were each handed two years in prison under Article 285 of the penal code, which outlines punishment for negligence involving fires, and six years under Article 304 (a) for causing death by negligence, Aung Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The court had determined they were responsible for the deaths in the fire because they had slept at the mosque that night, he said.
“But, at that time, they were not appointed as teachers for the coming school year. They came into the mosque in the evening to pray and they slept overnight there because there were no adults at the mosque that night,” he said.
The blaze trapped 16 children in a small loft in the compound, from which three children escaped by jumping to safety.
According to Myanmar Eleven Media, the parents and guardians of the 13 children who perished tried to drop charges against the two imams, but the court said it had the right to protect the lives of people within the law.
Earlier this week, the chief minister of Myanmar’s Mandalay division, Ye Myint, was charged with negligence over a fire that broke out at his home.
The charges were a rare legal challenge of a top ranking official, reflecting reforms following decades of military rule, but reports said the local authorities took action against Ye Myint only after coming under public criticism.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.