Burma's government has promised to take steps to restore peace in Rakhine state, where violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has flared up twice in the past six months. In particular, the government has pledged to restore the rule of law, but the decision made in a Sittwe court this week calls the sincerity of that pledge into question.
During a news conference last week, Burmese Border Affairs Minister Thein Htay, the top official overseeing efforts to bring peace to Rakhine state, promised law enforcement authorities in the region are ensuring those accused of inciting the violence that first started in June are brought to justice.
"There are some activities to restore the rule of law so we have appointed some administrators in the region and also we have some units for special investigations," the minister announced.
Despite those pledges, international rights groups are concerned that there is mounting evidence that prisoners are being held without due process. Matthew Smith of Human Rights Watch was recently in Rakhine state, formerly known as Arakan.
"I do know hundreds have been rounded up in northern Arakan state," Smith said.
"There are detention facilities throughout northern Arakan, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung and all these places are alleged to be home to detainees now so there's definitely a big need to get some independent eyes into these prisons to talk to people and find out what's going on."
This week Tun Aung, an ethnic Rohingya was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison on three different charges, including the rarely-prosecuted charge of possessing foreign currency, possessing a SIM card, and violating the emergency provision act. Amnesty International reports he has not been able to seek legal counsel, nor been able to receive medical care for a pituitary tumor.
Tun Aung’s daughter, who works for the United Nations refugee agency, was also arrested and remains in jail at Insein prison in Rangoon.
Abu Tahay, a Rohingya community leader and former MP-elect, says Tun Aung is not the only ethnic Rohingya to receive a hefty jail sentence without a fair trial.
"Not only Tun Aung there is almost hundred people also from Buthidaung and Maungdaw also sentences eight to 12 years within months by the courts. So no lawyers are allowed as per court procedures," he said.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a local administrator for Doctors Without Borders, was in prison with Tun Aung until he gained release in August. He says they were tortured while in jail and were forced to deny their Rohingya ethnicity and say they were, in fact, Bengali.
"Very bad condition. 185 accused were still in jail custody under trial of other cases and two accused were also tortured in jail and killed last 10 days ago," he said.
The two dead men were identified as 56-year-old Shukur Gyi and 60-year-old Fur Ahmed. Kyaw Hla Aung said, when their bodies arrived at their village for burial, they bore signs of torture.
Rights activists say the inquiry into the Rakhine violence is another reminder that the Burmese judicial system has remained largely untouched by recent reforms, and still lacks the independence required for an impartial investigation.