A district court in Shan state, Myanmar on Monday sentenced 20 Muslims accused of links with a terrorist group to harsh jail terms, ranging from seven to 19 years.
Fourteen men and four women received sentences of 14 years, while one man was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges under the Emergency Provision Act and Unlawful Association Act, according to Thein Shwe, a defense lawyer for three of the convicted.
The twentieth person, a 15-year-old boy, was sentenced to seven years.
The lawyer added that one of the jailed men worked as a driver in the President’s Office.
“I think the justice is unfair and the court has ruled based on the findings of military intelligence and the forced confession of three people. But there is no evidence backing the charges,” Thein Shwe told ucanews.com on Tuesday.
“It is too harsh as the court used maximum sentences in a draconian 1950 law so we will appeal to the higher court in Taunggyi, Shan state next week. I hope the sentences may be reduced through our appeal.”
According to the lawyer, several suspects were tortured and much of the case fell on forced confessions extracted during two weeks of interrogation by military intelligence officers in August 2014.
The 20 Muslims were arrested in August 2014 while traveling to a wedding ceremony in Kon Hein, southern Shan state. They are from Kon Hein, Taunggyi, Naypyidaw and Kyaukse, central Myanmar. Officials claimed they found weapons in their car, which they later linked to a terrorist group.
Radio Free Asia quoted the national police chief, Win Khaung, as saying that the 20 Muslims had links to an unspecified armed terrorist group and were planning to carry out an act of terrorism.
Myanmar has been grappling with religious violence as it emerges from decades of isolation and a military dictatorship. During that time anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing steadily.
More than 200 people were killed and 140,000 Muslims were forced to flee during religious violence in western Myanmar in 2012, which has since spread to Meikhtila, Lashio and Mandalay.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of Yangon-based human rights group, Equality Myanmar, said that although he hadn’t followed up on all the proceedings and court hearing, he was concerned about the forced confessions and reported lack of evidence.
“As a result of a broken and weak judiciary system in Myanmar, I’m much concerned that the court might have ruled based on the bias against non-Buddhists,” Aung Myo Min told ucanews.com on Tuesday.