An Arakan State court reportedly sentenced 76 Rohingya Muslims to lengthy prison terms last week for their alleged roles in an outburst of deadly inter-communal violence in Maungdaw Township in June last year, according to a human rights group and a local media report.
“On 20 and 21 August, Buthidaung Court sentenced 43 Rohingya detainees, all from Ba Gone Nar Village Tract in Maungdaw South, in relation to the June  violence.
Of them, 35 were sentenced to 17 years, four to 6 years and four to life imprisonment,” the group said in a draft report that it recently submitted to the UN special envoy on the human rights situation in Burma Tomás Quintana.
On August 22, another 33 detainees were scheduled to be convicted by the Maungdaw Court, Arakan Project director Chris Lewa said on Friday, adding that she was still finding out what the court had decided.
Burmese newspaper The Voice Daily quoted a local official as saying that the Maungdaw Court handed down three life sentences. “Three Bengalis who killed one monk were sentenced to life in prison. Ten people were sentenced to 10 years,” Arakan State Attorney General Hla Thein told the newspaper.
Arakan and central government officials refer to the stateless Muslim minority as “Bengalis” to suggest that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The men were convicted for murder and a range of other charges related to the burning down of Arakanese Buddhists’ homes, a primary school and a health clinic in Kandayar and Mawyawaddy villages in Maungdaw Township in June 2012, according to The Voice Daily.
Arakan State spokesperson Win Myaing confirmed with The Irrawaddy that dozens of Muslim men had been sentenced last week, but gave few details. “We heard that the court sentenced them. But we do not have detailed information to talk about this case. This authority [to discuss cases] belongs to the court,” he said.
The Rohingya men spent more than one year in pre-trial detention in Buthidaung Jail before being sentenced. They are part a group of “hundreds of Rohingyas, including children and four humanitarian workers, [who] were arrested and detained for alleged involvement in violence in June 2012,” the Arakan Project said, adding that many had been tortured in custody.
On Jun 8, Rohingyas attacked Buddhist villages in Maungdaw Township, killing a number of villagers and torching homes. Waves of inter-communal violence subsequently spread through the state and by late October, 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced and 192 had been killed.
Human rights groups have accused government security forces of supporting the Buddhist communities against the Rohingya, and of carrying out arbitrary arrest and systematic and widespread rights abuses against the Muslim minority.
Lewa said last week’s sentences constituted a violation of the defendants’ basic rights. “None of these people had any fair judicial process and the sentences were extremely harsh. Some of these people were certainly not even involved in the [inter-communal] violence,” she said.
By comparison, Lewa said, “very few” Buddhist perpetrators of the violence were sentenced “and they received lighter sentences.”
Myo Thant, a Rohingya politician with the Maungdaw-based Democracy and Human Rights Party, said many Rohingya families in the Muslim-majority area in northern Arakan State had relatives in jail, but they are unable to communicate with them, let alone support them during their trial.
He said that his younger brother, called Kyaw Naing, had been sentenced by the Maungdaw Court on July 12 to 10 years imprisonment for alleged involvement in last year’s violence.
The family had been unable to hire a lawyer to aid his brother’s defence, he said, “Because they did not even inform our family when they sentenced him. My family still does not dare to speak out about this despite their understanding that the court sentencing of their son was not fair.”
Shwe Maung, a Muslim lawmaker from Buthidaung Township who represents the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, said arrests in Maungdaw Township were often arbitrary and court proceedings biased against Muslim villagers.
“There is no rule of law there because the victims cannot defend themselves in court,” he said. “The court only listens to one-side information and the victims have to suffer for this, as they cannot have a lawyer and their families cannot go to defend their people in court.