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Myanmar Sentences Journalist with BBC to Three Years Labor

FILE - Police arrest a journalist in Yangon on February 27, 2021, as protesters were taking part in a demonstration against the military coup.

A court in Yangon on Thursday sentenced a Myanmar journalist to three years’ labor in a move that a lawyer says is politically motivated.

The journalist, Htet Htet Khine, worked for BBC Media Action. She has been detained in Insein prison since her arrest in August 2021.

A court in the Bahan Township in Yangon convicted the journalist of incitement under Section 505(a) of the Myanmar penal code. Her sentence: three years in prison with labor.

A lawyer who represents journalists and is familiar with the case told VOA Burmese that the prosecutor did not provide evidence.

"It is obvious that [the case] is politically motivated. Therefore, the court has made a one-sided review and handed down the order," said the lawyer, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

"If there is a prominent person, those who have the ability to draw public attention, those who may be dangerous for the junta [they] can be prosecuted anyway respectively," the lawyer said. "It's [the junta’s] policy in the era of political instability."

Authorities arrested Htet Htet Khine on Aug. 15, 2022, along with Sithu Aung Myint, a VOA Burmese contributor. Sithu Aung Myint is detained in Insein on charges of incitement and false news.

The military council has repeatedly denied restricting or targeting journalists and said that it "respects and values media freedom."

But since it seized power in a February 2021 coup, more than 120 journalists have been detained, according to Reporting ASEAN, which tracks arrests in Myanmar. Of those, nearly 50 are still in custody. Several news outlets had licenses revoked or have been forced to shutter or to move their teams into exile.

One of those in custody is Soe Yarza Tun, a freelance journalist charged under the country’s Counterterrorism Act.

A relative told VOA Burmese that hearings have recently resumed, so they expect the court to reach a verdict soon.

"We were able to see him for the first time at the last trial. He is fine," said the relative, who asked for anonymity. "Now, he has two more hearings to face."

The family believes the journalist could be sentenced to as long as 10 years in prison.

One of the lawyers representing jailed journalists said the cases take a toll on those charged and the families who support them.

"The main difficulty we are facing is two-fold. Some of the cases have been ongoing for a long time. The families supporting them get tired and financially frustrated," the lawyer said. "The detained journalists face hardship in prison, lack of health care, no proper accommodation."

The lawyer said the Press Council — a body whose members were picked by the military — is supposed to mediate between authorities and journalists who are detained.

"It is difficult for the journalists to be released from prison because the Press Council, which was reconstituted under the current military council, did not stand up for the arrested journalists at all, trying to keep a distance to avoid trouble," the lawyer said.

VOA reached out to Ohn Kyaing, the head of the Press Council, for comment. He responded, via a relative, to say that he has no comment on the cases.

In Htet Htet Khine’s case, a person who asked not to be identified told VOA that the BBC journalist has been transferred to a ward of Insein prison that houses convicted criminals.

The journalist is facing a separate charge of unlawful association.

This story originated in VOA’s Burmese Service. Khin Soe Win contributed to this report.