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Aid workers sentenced after Myanmar ethnic clashes

August 27, 2012 | 12:10 pm

In Myanmar, aid workers from the United Nations and a partner agency have been sentenced in a murky case that has been linked to the ethnic violence that wracked western stretches of the country earlier this summer.

The aid workers included a Myanmar national working for the U.N. refugee agency and another worker from a partner nonprofit, said Babar Baloch, communications officer with the agency.

A third worker with the U.N. World Food Program was also sentenced, a U.N. spokesman based in Myanmar told the Associated Press. The World Food Program declined to comment on the case.

Baloch said the refugee agency had received no official information about the workers' alleged crimes and punishments. The sentences were handed down Friday in Maungdaw District Court, but news of the case did not spread until later, with many details still unclear Monday.  

"We are very disappointed with the outcome of these cases, especially after the positive development which had happened," Baloch said, referring to the release of six other prisoners held in connection with the matter. "We have pressed the Myanmar authorities to clarify what the charges are. Every individual deserves a fair trial according to international standards."

The charges are widely believed to be linked to the ethnic violence that erupted in Rakhine state earlier this summer. Eleven News Journal in Myanmar reported that the three were imprisoned for "alleged involvement in arson attacks and promoting hatred between Buddhists and Muslims."

According to the Myanmar news outlet, the World Food Program employee was sentenced to two years in jail, while the other two workers were dealt sentences of six years and three years. A Myanmar government official described the same sentences to Agence France-Presse.

A dozen U.N. and other aid workers were first detained in June after the start of the riots, a devastating series of revenge attacks that began after a Buddhist woman was reportedly raped by Muslim men. Rakhine descended into chaos as mobs burned homes and killed scores of villagers.

Human rights groups have accused authorities of standing by and even joining in some of the attacks against Rohingya Muslims, then clamping down on humanitarian access to areas ravaged by the violence. The jailing of the aid workers and hundreds of Rohingya men and boys added to their alarm. The six workers were freed earlier this month, but others continue to be imprisoned.

Freeing them was protested by some politicians. "It is now quite unfair because the Muslims who triggered the unrest are freed while the innocent [Rakhine] people are still being held in the jails," U Oo Hla Saw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party told a Rakhine news service.

During a mission to Myanmar earlier this month, U.N. human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana visited six U.N. staffers who had been detained and called for them to be immediately released.

"I am of the view that the charges against them are unfounded and that their due process rights have been denied," Quintana said.

Other detainees included six staffers from Doctors Without Borders, four of whom were later released, said Jason Cone, a spokesman for the organization. One released worker, Kyaw Hla Aung, told Radio Free Asia that he had been accused of ties to Al Qaeda and charged with "inciting unrest" before he was freed.

While two Doctors Without Borders staffers are still in detention, the nonprofit said it does not believe either of them were among the prisoners sentenced Friday, though it remains concerned about their welfare.

Ethnic animosity and violence is feared to be one of the problems that could undermine reform in Myanmar, which has taken recent steps to ease its international isolation, freeing political prisoners and allowing the opposition to run in elections.

Though officals in Myanmar have denied that the Rakhine violence was linked to religious or ethnic persecution, rights groups point out that the Rohingya remain effectively excluded from citizenship, rendering them stateless.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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