Burma: Two Pastors Sentenced to Prison
Two assistant pastors arrested by the Burma (Myanmar) army last December were sentenced to prison on Friday (Oct. 27) on false charges of unlawful association, defaming the military and spying, sources said.
According to the Morning Star News, Pastor Dom Dawng Nawng Latt, 65, received a prison term of four years and three months, and fellow pastor La Jaw Gam Hseng, 35, received two years and three months, according to sources present in court in Lashio town, in Shan state.
The two ethnic Kachin pastors, members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, were charged under the Unlawful Association Act for alleged connections with an ethnic armed group, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and allegedly spying for it. Nawng Latt was prosecuted under a defamation statute. They deny the charges, which colleagues say are baseless.
Nawn Latt received the additional two years under the defamation charge as the military accused him of criticizing the army while speaking to media. Pastor Zau Ra, secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Mong Maung town, Shan state, told Morning Star News the two pastors were likely arrested and charged for speaking to media and helping local journalists cover army attacks on a Catholic church building, schools and houses in Shan state in November 2016.
The two pastors took local journalists to take pictures of the damaged St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church building that was bombed by Burma army jets at that time.
The Burma army arrested them on Dec. 24, 2016 when they went to Byuha Gone military base to negotiate release of a civilian couple who had complained to army officials about the destruction of their house, source said. They were held for months without trial, though suspects are supposed to be tried after no more than 28 days in Burma, sources said.
“We want them [pastors] to be freed, because they did nothing wrong,” Pastor Zau Ra said. “They should not be jailed. We will continue to help them in legal means. We will submit an appeal. We will ask for a bail. We will ask for their release.”
He told Morning Star News that there is no evidence that the two pastors work for the KIO.
“It [the verdict] is not fair – they don’t work for the KIO,” he said. “There is no evidence. They are just religious leaders, and they may have travel anywhere for preaching or prayer. Religious leaders should be free to go for preaching and praying anywhere. If they were to help an armed group, that is the different story.”
Pastor Zau Ra said that some areas where the two pastors live are partly controlled by the KIO, and that religious leaders travel everywhere for preaching and praying. Traveling to areas controlled by the KIO is not evidence to link the two pastors with the KIO, he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Yangon released a statement on Friday (Oct. 27) raising concern over the legal action against the two Christian leaders.
“We are concerned that these individuals were targeted for assisting journalists,” the statement read. “We are also concerned about allegations of mistreatment during their detention. We call for the end of the use of the Unlawful Association Act and other laws used to arbitrarily arrest citizens, and we call on all actors to build trust and keep Myanmar on the path toward national peace and reconciliation.”