Ex-Monk U Gambira Gets Six Months in Prison on Immigration Charge

By Zarni Mann 26 April 2016

MANDALAY — A court in Mandalay Division’s Maha Aung Myay Township on Tuesday sentenced Nyi Nyi Lwin, a leader of Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution who is better known as U Gambira, to six months in prison with labor on a controversial immigration charge.

Speaking following the ruling of his pre-verdict high hopes for a withdrawal of the case—as scores of student activists benefitted from earlier this month—Gambira expressed disappointment at the trial’s outcome on Tuesday.

“The authorities might think my case is unrelated to any political issue. What I believe is the authorities fabricated the case to put me behind bars again,” said the 36-year-old.

Arrested on Jan. 19 for allegedly crossing the Thai-Burma border without an official visa, Gambira had for months petitioned unsuccessfully for bail, citing mental health issues that resulted from severe torture while imprisoned by the former military regime for his involvement in the 2007 pro-democracy uprising led by Buddhist clergy. With time served, the former monk will spend just under three more months behind bars, and on Tuesday said he did not intend to appeal the verdict.

“I am very disappointed. But I am not going to submit an appeal as I don’t believe in this judicial system, even after there were changes to a new government,” he said.

The jury of the court said during Tuesday’s hearing that the six-month prison term was the minimal sentence allowable for those found guilty under Section 13.1 of the Immigration Act.

That, however, did not assuage the concerns of the convicted man’s family, who pointed to the regular medical treatment that his mental illness requires.

“I don’t want my son to be in prison six months, or even just a day. I believe Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw will not neglect him and many other remaining prisoners who were jailed with unjust laws,” said Daw Yay, his mother.

New York-based Human Rights Watch earlier on Tuesday called for authorities to dismiss the “politically motivated” charges.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International made a similar demand shortly after he was arrested in January.

Following the verdict, David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior Burma researcher, chalked up the contentious outcome to “some vengeful cabal in the security forces, [and] the corrupt legal process that facilitates them,” adding that the burden would now fall to President Htin Kyaw to pardon Gambira “immediately.”

“Failing to do this as a priority will fatally undermine the government’s commitment to end the cycle of political prisoners and politically motivated charges,” he told The Irrawaddy. “On purely humanitarian grounds, let alone genuine rule of law, Gambira should have been released today.”

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government on April 7 said release of the country’s scores of remaining political prisoners was a top priority, laying out a strategy to do so “as soon as possible.”

The student activists who had their charges withdrawn and scores of other prisoners of conscience have since been released.

But in Mandalay’s Obo Prison, Myo Win, a farmers’ rights activists, and Yay Pu Sayadaw, an abbot from Mogok, remain detained and on trial, among the many still hoping for the NLD leadership’s intervention.

“We were told that the case we are facing is nothing related to political issues. But what I want to say here is the authorities and the government’s lawyers are misusing the laws just to keep activists and journalists behind bars,” said Myo Win, after a hearing in Mandalay’s Patheingyi Township on Tuesday.

Myo Win was arrested six months ago while assisting farmers turned victims of land confiscation in Patheingyi Township. He is facing trial for allegedly destroying public property.

“If the authorities don’t recognize those who are facing unjust trials and who are behind bars unlawfully, we have to question the judicial system under the new government, which is always talking about change,” he added.

Asked about the dozens of political prisoners still behind bars, Mathieson noted the progress seen in recent weeks, but urged swift resolution for the many cases still pending.

“The new government has done the right thing in starting to pardon people facing charges and release political prisoners, but it’s not over yet by a long shot. … The government’s approach to activists undergoing trial this week will be an important litmus test of their sincerity,” he said, noting Maung Saungkha as among those going through the court system this week.

According to figures from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are 60 political prisoners—plus now Gambira—who remain behind bars at prisons across the country, while more than 200 farmers and assorted activists are still facing trials.

Andrew D. Kaspar contributed reporting from Rangoon.