Last week, Maungdaw Court in Arakan State sentenced 68 Rohingya Muslims to prison terms of up to five years for their roles in last year’s inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in northern Arakan, local leaders and officials said.
Almost 200 Muslims have now been sentenced to lengthy terms in Buthidaung Township’s notorious prison. Rohingya leaders allege the defendants received disproportionally harsh sentences in unfair trials.
Maungdaw Township Court found 68 Muslims guilty of arson under article 436 of the Penal Code and punished them with prison sentences of between three and five years, local Arakanese and Muslim sources told The Irrawaddy.
“According to the relevant authorities, 65 Muslims were sentenced for five years each in late October,” said Kyaw Soe Aung, a spokesperson of Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rangoon-based Muslim political party. He added that another three defendants were sentenced to three years imprisonment.
The group was sentenced for their roles in attacks on the Arakanese Buddhist village of Bohmuu in Maungdaw Township on Jun 8, 2012. A Muslim mob reportedly set houses on fire and killed a doctor and administrative officials during the attack.
Arakan State government’s attorney-general Hla Thein said the sentences wrapped up the trials of those involved in last year’s violence in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships. “All the trials were completed in the last week of October,” he said in a brief phone call, without elaborating on the cases.
An official at Maungdaw Court confirmed the sentences had been handed down but declined further comment.
In June and October 2012, two waves of deadly inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims swept through western Burma’s Arakan State, killing almost 200 people, destroying thousands of homes and displacing 142,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Burma’s government has been accused of tacitly supporting Buddhist mob violence. It does not recognize the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority as citizens and officials refer to them as “Bengalis” to suggest that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingyas claim they have lived in Arakan for generations and are entitled to citizenship.
Last year’s violence affected areas around the state capital Sittwe and in the Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Arakan. The violence first flared up in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, where Rohingyas attacked Arakanese villages on June 8, 2012.
About 20 Arakanese villages were reportedly burned down in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships and 12 Arakanese villagers were killed in Muslim mob attacks.
When violence spread to Sittwe in mid-June 2012, most of the town’s Muslim population—which comprised about half its original 170,000 inhabitants—were attacked and chased out by Buddhist mobs, while their properties were looted and destroyed.
Many of the displaced Muslims continue to languish in squalid and crowded camps in the countryside.
In Maungdaw and Buthidaung, hundreds were arrested in the aftermath of the violence. According to human rights groups, Muslim men and boys were subject to arbitrary arrests and held incommunicado for many months.
“Hundreds of Rohingyas, including children and four humanitarian workers, were arrested and detained for alleged involvement in violence in June 2012,” the Arakan Project said in a report submitted to the UN human rights rapporteur for Burma in August. By comparison, “very few” Buddhist perpetrators of the violence were sentenced, said the Rohingya rights group.
On Aug. 20-21, 35 Muslim detainees were sentenced to 17 years, four to 6 years and four to life imprisonment for the violence in Maungdaw. Another 33 had been scheduled for sentencing in late August but the outcome of their trial remains unclear.
About 55 Muslims suspected of involvement in violence in Buthidaung had been sentenced to prison terms of between 4 and 10 years in August last year.
Last week’s sentences raise the total number of Rohingyas imprisoned for the violence in northern Arakan State to 193.
Rohingya residents of Buthidaung said they felt the trials had been unfair as they were held behind closed doors and Muslim defendants had not been given a lawyer.
“The Muslims arrested in relation to the last year’s conflict are not allowed to hire lawyers, but in regular legal cases it’s okay [for Muslims] to hire a lawyer,” said a Rohingya man, who declined to be named out of fear for retribution by authorities.
Another Muslim resident alleged, “There are over 800 people still being detained and many of them received their verdicts in closed trials.” He said almost 100 minors had been among those arrested last year, adding that some had since been released.
“According to the released youths, they were badly treated in prison, without having enough food or water during their detention,” said the man, who declined to be identified. He added that he had heard that another 30 Muslim defendants are still on trial at Buthidaung Court.
Khin Maung Than, Maungdaw Township chairman of the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP), which represents the Arakanese Buddhist population, played down the allegations that Muslim defendants had been subject to an unfair trial.
“We actually heard that the government arranged lawyers to represent most of the Muslim offenders, as they cannot afford to hire the own lawyers,” he said. Khin Maung Tan went on to claim that despite the arrest of numerous Muslims in northern Arakan State “those who committed the killings are still at large.”
“As Maungdaw is a border town near neighboring Bangladesh, the Bengalis can easily cross the Naf River to escape or sneak back [into Burma],” he said, referring to the Muslim community.
A Muslim resident of Buthidaung said tensions between the communities in the town had lessened in recent months, although the Muslim population was still restricted from travelling outside of Buthidaung.
The Arakanese Buddhist minority in northern Arakan State reportedly still live in shelters in their original villages. Some armed security forces are stationed nearby for their protection, but Arakanese villagers have said they still feel unsafe.