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Oct 19, 2009 (DVB), Twelve farmers in central Burma have been sentenced to up to five years imprisonment with hard labour on trespassing charges after returning to work on land confiscated by the government.
The case is being closely monitored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Rangoon, according to the group's country liaison officer, Steve Marshall.
The farmers, from Aunglan in Magwe division, won a dispute over the 2000 acres of confiscated land following a meeting between the ILO and government officials in March this year. The land had been taken after the farmers refused to bow to government pressure to grow sugarcane for army-run Aunglan township's sugar factory.
Then in July they were sued by the sugar factory and sentenced last week on charges of trespassing and damage to property.
The sentences ranged from nine months to four years and nine months, all with hard labour, according the sister of one of the farmers.
Aye Aye Win, the wife of one of the farmers sentenced last week, received the harshest sentence after being "accused of cursing the sugar factory personals after they sued her", the sister said.
Steve Marshall said that the ILO, a United Nations body with a mandate to work on complaints over land confiscation and forced labour in Burma, is "seriously concerned" about the sentencing.
"We have raised [it] as a serious issue with the government and have requested them to affect the immediate release of the imprisoned persons," he said.
The charges, brought by local government officials in Magwe division, appeared to contradict the agreement reached in March between the ILO and central government, he said.
He added that it was "not a political issue at all. It involves farmers, the use of forced labour, the loss of the use of land, and the resolution of that problem. It is about the application of Myanmar [Burma] law".
According to the ILO, around 220 complaints of forced labour in Burma had been received. Marshall said that the vast majority of these had been resolved "without any harassment or any problems for the complainants".
In some cases, however, he said that there were "serious problems" in terms of government retribution against complainants.
Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw