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US Condemns Harsh Sentences for Burmese Dissidents


The United States has joined human rights advocates in condemning long prison terms handed down against at least 30 Burmese dissidents on Tuesday. Several of the activists were given 65-year sentences for their role in anti-government protests last year. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Bush administration has used some of its sharpest language to date in condemning the sentencing of the Burmese dissidents, accused of helping organize street protests last year that were put down by the Burmese military government.

Rangoon authorities in the last two weeks began closed-door trials of more than 70 political activists, Buddhist monks, journalists and others jailed in connection with a wave of protests last August and September spurred by fuel price increases.

The military moved against demonstrators in a brutal crackdown that United Nations officials say left more than 30 people dead.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said the United States strongly condemns the sentences handed down Tuesday, which ranged from two years to 65 years in prison:

"These brave democracy activists are peaceful citizens whose only crime was to challenge the regimes illegitimate rule," said Robert Wood. "We further condemn the matter in which the trials were conducted. The regime held closed-court sessions and did not allow family members or lawyers to attend. We reiterate our call for the regime to cease harassing and arresting civilians for peacefully exercising their internationally recognize human rights."

Wood called on Burmese military leaders to begin a genuine dialogue with political opponents and ethnic minority representatives, and to immediately release the country's estimated two thousand political prisoners including democracy leader Aung San Su Kyi.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday the dissident trials and sentencing reflect a more concentrated crackdown on dissent, clearly aimed at intimidating the Burmese population.

A spokeswoman for the New York-based watchdog group said Burmese leaders appear to be "clearing the decks" of political activists in advance of "sham reforms" under the government's widely-criticized new constitution.

Both the State Department and Human Rights Watch have also condemned the prosecution of four Burmese defense lawyers who tried to withdraw from dissident trials because of unfair proceedings.

Spokesman Wood said the United States intends to continue raising human rights issues directly with the Rangoon government, with which it maintains relations at the charge d'Affaires level, and will press regional allies to try to use their influence for Burmese reform.

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush has taken a high-profile role in advocating democratic change in Burma, and the White House said Monday President Bush has named a former top adviser on Asian affairs, Michael Green, to be his special envoy and policy chief for Burma.

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