SANKLABURI, THAILAND - A Myanmar court in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina on Wednesday sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging in a case that has already strained relations with Beijing.
Two other Chinese minors were given prison terms of 10 years each for the same offense, while a woman in the group received an additional 15 years on a drug charge.
Lawyer Khin Maung, who represented the Chinese defendants, tells VOA's Burmese service that the sentences were handed out by two judges. He told the Associated Press that life terms are generally treated as 20 years in Myanmar's judicial system.
“They are in two groups; the first group totals 85 and the other 70," the lawyer said. "[One] judge decided life imprisonment to 83 of the first group and 10 years imprisonment to the other two who are just youths. Another judge decided 20 years imprisonment to all of second group, and it’s same as the life imprisonment."
All of the defendants will have 60 days to consider appealing the rulings.
Myanmar's army in January arrested the Chinese and some Myanmar nationals in Kachin state near the Chinese border, seizing 436 logging trucks, 14 pickup trucks loaded with logs, stimulant drugs, raw opium and Chinese currency.
Chinese loggers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, send wood to China even though timber exports were banned in 2014. Analysts at the British non-profit researcher, the Environmental Investigation Agency, reported in 2012 that the timber can be exported because the loggers make deals with local ethnic minority warlords and, according to some critics, local Myanmar military officers.
The loggers were sentenced under a 1963 law calling for jail terms of 10 years to life for anyone who steals or otherwise misuses or abuses public property.
The verdict quickly attracted attention in China, where the defendants have been a cause celebre since their arrests, with calls for the Chinese government to apply pressure for their release.
The state-run Beijing Times newspaper quotes a Chinese Embassy official as saying Beijing is concerned about the verdicts and is discussing the matter with Myanmar's foreign ministry. The embassy said the workers had been deceived by criminals from both China and Myanmar to engage in illegal logging.
China is Myanmar's closest political and economic ally, but significant tensions exist between the two nations. Chinese economic penetration is big and highly visible in northern Myanmar, and some large infrastructure and mining projects have drawn charges of being insensitive to environmental issue and local residents' concerns.
The Chinese nationals were arrested in January during a crackdown on the illegal timber trade in Kachin State.
Illegal logging is widely considered a major problem in Myanmar, where ethnic rebel groups have been fighting the government for decades.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service. Portions of this report from the Associated Press.