RANGOON — Twenty Burmese Muslims remain in prison awaiting a verdict almost five months after they were detained and accused of links to terrorism, with a lawyer representing some of the defendants saying odds for a fair trial look slim despite a dearth of credible evidence against the accused.
The detained men and women are from Taunggyi, Kyaukse and Naypyidaw, and were arrested in August in Konhein Township, Shan State, while they were traveling to a wedding in the town of Konhein.
"They were charged with Article 5(j) and 5(l)" of Burma's Emergency Provisions Act, said Khin Moe Moe, a lawyer for 12 of the detained. "They did not have any contact with insurgent armed groups, they were just traveling for a wedding. … They are just normal people. Even the police bringing charges could not provide evidence at court about links to an armed group."
Win Khaung, the national police chief, has disputed that claim, telling Radio Free Asia that the 20 detainees had links to an unspecified armed terrorist group and were planning to carry out an act of terrorism, allegations to which the police chief said the accused had confessed.
Both charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
"I do not think that these victims will get fair justice," Khin Moe Moe added. "I believe that there are instructions for the court in Taunggyi from top officers about how to punish these victims. The judge will sentence the victims even though the victims are innocent and even though police do not have [sufficient] evidence."
The 20 Muslims are all Burmese nationals, and some are even members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), according to their lawyer.
The accused have been held in a prison in Mandalay since August, with their lawyer objecting to their incarceration while the investigation is ongoing.
"Prison is for those who have been sentenced. These people are not guilty yet," she said. "An investigation is ongoing. They should not be in prison."
She said prison authorities have refused to let the families of the detained Muslims visit them. The four women and 16 men have appeared in court 20 times already, according to the lawyer.
Khin Moe Moe also claimed that monks aligned with the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement were interfering in the case. A group of 969-affiliated monks has attended every court hearing convened, and Khin Moe Moe said she had received a threat from a 969 member on Facebook.
"They come to show their power whenever the victims appear in court. They were waiting in front of the court during the victims' trial. They showed their power to create trouble sometimes. I told the victims' families not to come to the court out of concern," she said.
Members of Burma's Muslim minority are severely repressed in western Arakan State, but elsewhere in the country they have largely managed to avoid discriminatory treatment by authorities, despite rising interreligious tensions in recent years.
More than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that have broken out sporadically since mid-2012. The most recent violence erupted in Mandalay in July, when one Buddhist and one Muslim were killed during rioting that lasted two days.
In Arakan State, more than 100,000 Muslims remain confined to displacement camps after they fled their homes in the 2012 violence.