A court in central Myanmar sentenced seven Muslims to between two years and life in prison over the death of a Buddhist monk that fueled deadly communal riots two months ago in Meikhtila city, lawyers said Tuesday.
The defendants, accused of killing the monk Thawbita, were spared the death penalty in one of the highest-profile cases since sectarian violence flared in the country last year.
Myat Ko Ko, also known by the name Annawar, was sentenced to life imprisonment—equivalent in Myanmar to 20 years—for murder, in addition to four years for unlawful assembly and religious disrespect, for a total of 24 years in prison, a lawyer for the defendants said.
Five others—Myo Myo Tun, Myo Nytunt, Pho Cho, Zaw Thet Naing, and Myo Win, who is also known as Rache—were given between two and 14 years in jail for charges including abetting murder, unlawful assembly, and religious disrespect.
A juvenile defendant, Nyi Nyi Aung, was tried in a separate court and received a seven-year sentence—the maximum allowed.
Another four people suspected by police of masterminding the murder are still on the run.
Thein Than Tun, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said observers were not allowed in the courtroom during the trial because of the sensitivity of the case.
“No one could get into the court today,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Thawbita’s death on March 20 had inflamed passions in Meikhtila after photos circulated widely through social media of what was purported to be his body after he was pulled off a motorbike, attacked and burned.
Clashes stemming from quarrel earlier that day between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner of a goldsmith shop in Meikhtila spread to other towns in central Myanmar and raged for more than a week, leaving at least 44 dead and 12,000 displaced—most of them Muslims.
So far no Buddhists have been convicted over the clashes, but authorities have said both Buddhists and Muslims are among the more than 140 people arrested in connection with the violence.
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.
International rights groups have accused local authorities of complicity in the violence, saying security forces stood by and watched while attackers burned down entire neighborhoods.
State of emergency renewed
On Tuesday, Myanmar’s parliament voted to extend for two months a state of emergency in the area, which had been declared by President Thein Sein in the area on March 22 and was up for renewal.
The clashes in central Myanmar were the third bout of sectarian violence in the country since last year, when deadly violence flared up in Rakhine state in the west.
The June 2012 unrest in Rakhine state, together with clashes in October, left at least 192 dead and 140,000 homeless—most of them Muslim Rohingya, who rights groups say bore the brunt of the violence.
Reported by Yadanar Oo and Myint Oo for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.