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Prison term for Myanmar pastor sparks outrage

Military court convicts Pastor Hkalam Samson on terrorism, unlawful association and incitement charges

Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson (center) has been jailed for 6 years by a military court in Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar's Kachin State, Sept. 9, 2019

Reverend Dr. Hkalam Samson (center) has been jailed for 6 years by a military court in Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar's Kachin State, Sept. 9, 2019. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)

Published: April 10, 2023 06:04 AM GMT

Updated: April 10, 2023 06:32 AM GMT

Christian leaders in Myanmar and around the world have slammed a military court's decision to jail an outspoken pastor for six years on terrorism, unlawful association and incitement charges.

Pastor Hkalam Samson, the former leader of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) was sentenced on April 7 in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State when Christians around the world celebrated Good Friday.

He had been in detention since being arrested in December. 

Elijah Brown, general secretary and CEO of the Baptist World Alliance, said, “Pastor Samson’s sentencing is a grave injustice,” amplified on the day Christians around the world “gathered to declare our faith in Jesus.”

“Yet in this dark moment, let every Church pray for Pastor Samson and let each one of us lift our voice in Easter hope that Jesus still transforms unjust imprisonment into a new life,” Brown said.

Benedict Rogers, senior East Asia analyst for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said the sentence was “an outrageous travesty of justice.”

“Rev. Samson is a completely non-violent Christian pastor and a brave and tireless advocate of justice, human rights and peace. He has been jailed simply for courageously speaking out against the Myanmar military’s barbaric atrocities perpetrated against the people of Myanmar,” Rogers said.

“The coincidence of this act of injustice on Good Friday is not lost on us. We stand in solidarity with Rev. Samson and all those who fight for justice and human rights in Myanmar,” Mahn Winn Khaing Than, prime minister of the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), the country’s opposition shadow government, said on Twitter.

The pastor received a three-year jail term for anti-terrorism activities for holding a meeting with members of the NUG, which includes ethnic groups and former lawmakers from Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which was ruling the Southeast Asian nation when the military staged a coup on Feb. 1, 2021.

The pastor was also given two years in jail under the draconian Unlawful Association Act for visiting Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), and one year for opposing the junta's rule in the Buddhist majority nation.

Pastor Samson currently serves as the chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, the political arm of the KIA. 

The lawyer, who defended the pastor in court, told the media that they will appeal against the ruling.

Pastor Samson was arrested by the military on Dec. 5 while heading for Bangkok for medical treatment. After a gap of 24 days, he was shifted to Myitkyina Prison. 

The pastor is well-known for his humanitarian work in civil war-torn Myanmar where ethnic strife and military campaigns have resulted in the death of more than 3,200 civilians and the displacement of more than 1.8 million people.

Earlier, the pastor was secretary and president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) for 12 years and is still associated with it in his capacity as an adviser.

When the military conducted an aerial attack on a music festival, organized by the KIO, in A Nang Pa village in Kachin State on Oct. 22 last year, he played a vital role in undertaking rescue operations.

In 2019, the military initiated legal action against the pastor for telling the then US president, Donald Trump, that the junta was oppressing ethnic minorities, including Christians, in Myanmar.

He was among a select group of people from 17 countries invited by the US administration to interact with Trump.

Christians make up nearly 6 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million, while Buddhism is the state religion and is practiced by 89 percent of the population.

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