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Human Rights Groups Protest 9 Death Sentences in Burma - 2003-12-04

Media watchdog groups are protesting death sentences handed down in Burma to nine men convicted of treason. The nine were accused of plotting to set off bombs and murder Burma's military leaders.

The Europe-based Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association have sent an open letter to Burma's prime minister saying they are outraged over the death sentences reportedly handed down last week. The nine men sentenced include sports magazine editor Zaw Thet Htway and two members of a Mon ethnic group party. The men were arrested in July.

Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel San Pwint subsequently said that security services had foiled a plot to bomb several sites in Rangoon and assassinate members of the ruling military council.

Before becoming editor of the First Eleven sports magazine, Zaw Thet Htwe spent four years in prison for his membership in an opposition party. Another detainee reportedly is the nephew one of the hijackers (Ye Thiha) of a Myanmar Airlines plane that was diverted to Thailand in 1989.

The government has not commented on the reported sentences. There have been no executions reported in Burma since 1988.

The nine were arrested a month after the government cracked down on the National League for Democracy and detained its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several dozen senior members. The crackdown followed a clash between party members and a pro-government group.

Aung Zaw, the Thailand-based editor of the Burmese magazine Irrawaddy, says the men were also accused of trying to disrupt peace and tranquility. "These charges are strikingly similar to charges against Aung San Suu Kyi and all the politicians, activists," he says. "The government, whenever they want to arrest someone, they always come up with these allegations and charges."

Aung Zaw says there are signs the government has become more security conscious since the crackdown. "There has been 24-hour patrols in Rangoon. More soldiers were seen, and a lot of surprise checks on the dissident's houses and those who are believed to be active in the democracy movement," he says. "So I think the government is quite vigilant. They're quite paranoid."

The government recently released five members of the NLD's central executive committee, but Aung San Suu Kyi remains confined to her home in Rangoon.

The developments come as human rights workers from Amnesty International begin a 17-day visit to Burma. After a visit earlier this year, the London-based group criticized the detention of political prisoners and the use of colonial-era laws to repress individual freedoms.