Blogger gets 45 years in prison; others sentenced

New York, November 21, 2008–A Burmese court sentenced entertainer, blogger, and activist Maung Thura–known by his stage name, “Zarganar”–to 45 years in prison today for violations of the Electronics Act, according to Burmese rights groups and international news reports. Sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe, and two other defendants were also sentenced to at least 15 years each in the same trial.

All four still face charges, and more years are expected to be added to the sentences next week, according to Aung Din of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma. They had collaborated to help survivors and videotape damage after Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Rangoon and much of the Irrawaddy Delta in May.

Courts have sentenced at least 100 people in Burma since early November, according to The Associated Press, including Ecovision Journal journalist Eine Khine Oo and blogger Nay Phone Latt.

“The sentences we have witnessed in Burma this month are nothing less than an assault on free expression,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “That it should stem from reporting in the public interest is a shocking indictment of the ruling military junta.”

Maung Thura, a well-known comedian, blogger and pro-democracy activist, coordinated relief efforts after the cyclone. Police arrested him at his home in Rangoon on June 4 shortly after he gave interviews to overseas-based news outlets, including the BBC, criticizing the military junta’s response to the disaster, according to international news reports. Police confiscated electronic equipment such as DVD footage of the cyclone damage, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and the United States Campaign for Burma. The day after his arrest, state-controlled media published warnings against sending video footage of relief work to foreign news agencies.

On August 7, during closed proceedings at Insein Prison in Rangoon, Maung Thura was indicted on multiple charges. Today’s sentence was the sum of three separate penalties–15 years each, the maximum allowed–imposed for crimes under the Electronics Act. He still faces four charges under different laws, including the Television and Video Act, the Unlawful Association Act, and the penal code, according to Aung Din.

Police arrested Rangoon-based freelance journalist Zaw Thet Htwe, former editor of sports newspaper First Eleven, on June 13 in the town of Minbu during a visit to his mother, according to Agence France-Presse. The 15-year sentence he received today was also under the Electronics Act. Both he and Maung Thura had been detained in the past. One of Maung Thura’s previous arrests took place in September 2007 for helping Buddhist monks during anti-government protests.

The Associated Press named the other two defendants as Thant Zin Aung, sentenced to 15 years, and Tin Maung Aye, who was given 29 years. Aung Din said Thant Zin Aung was arrested at the airport for trying to smuggle footage he had filmed of the disaster to Thailand, where he lives.