RANGOON — Seven Muslims suspected of killing a Buddhist monk in an up-country town in central Burma last month are on trial this week, according to local police.
An official from the No. 2 police station in Meikhtila told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the head of the station was the case’s acting plaintiff, adding that the suspects were arraigned on charges of murder, causing serious and fatal injuries, arson, and aiding and abetting crimes.
“Today we have a second court hearing. We can’t disclose any information about the case because it’s now in court questioning. The suspects have their own lawyers, too,” he said.
According to Burma’s Penal Code, the suspects could receive maximum sentences of life imprisonment or the death penalty if found guilty.
Aung Thein, of the Rangoon-based Lawyers Network, explained that the way the court decides to consider the case would be important.
“For murder cases, the weight of the punishment will vary depending on the court’s consideration of whether the case is something that just happened in the course of the rioting [a crime of passion] or was intentional [premeditated],” he said.
Wunna Shwe, the joint secretary-general of Burma’s Islamic Council, said he did not want to comment on the case for fear that his words could trigger more unrest.
“We are worried and still living in fear because there are still some anti-Muslim campaigns around the country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “I don’t want to be problematic.”
On Monday, the district court in Meikhtila, a town 130 kilometers north of the capital Naypyidaw, held its first hearing on the incident that sparked inter-communal violence between local Buddhists and Muslims. The unrest was triggered by a dispute between merchants and Buddhist customers at a Muslim-owned gold shop in the town on March 20.
Witnesses told The Irrawaddy that a group of Muslims attacked a monk riding a motorbike later that day, and the Buddhist cleric died in hospital, unleashing mobs of angry Buddhists. The ensuing rioting killed more than 40 people and destroyed hundreds of homes across 11 townships in Mandalay Division and Pegu Division.
On April 11, the two owners and an employee from the gold shop were each sentenced to 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, robbery, attempted injury, and aiding and abetting crimes.
The police said the three Muslims convicted, as well as the seven suspects currently on trial, are among a total of 70 people, comprised of 28 Muslims and 42 Buddhists, who were arrested for their alleged roles in the riots.
According to government reports, 43 people were killed during three days of clashes in Meikhtila, while 86 people were injured and 1,355 houses, shops and other buildings were destroyed.
About 12,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced in the violence, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
According to Wunna Shwe, the displaced remain at five relief camps across the town, still unable to return to their homes after spending a month living in makeshift tents.
“The security said it’s just for security reasons. The other thing is there are children among the refugees. Now with back-to-school season just around the corner, I’m worried that those children won’t make it.”
The Irrawaddy reporter Sanay Lin contributed to this report.