'Prayer' activists face sedition charges

Dec 2, 2009 (DVB), Four women, including an opposition party politician, have begun a trial in Rangoon in which they face charges of sedition after praying for the release of political prisoners in Burma.

The defendants have been held in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison since their arrest on 3 October. They were known for organizing weekly prayer ceremonies for detained activists, journalists and politicians, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their lawyer Kyaw Ho said the four, who began their trial yesterday, were charged with section 505(b) of the penal code (disturbing public tranquility) for handing a Kammavaca [Buddhist prayer book] to a monastery abbot in Magwe division.

One of the women, Naw Ohn Hla, is a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

"We will question the prosecution witnesses to find out how strong their evidence is and will also find a witness of our own," said Kyaw Ho, who is currently preparing a defense statement.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of two years. It has been used to imprison a number of perceived dissenters, including journalist Eint Khaing Oo, who was recently honoured with the Kenji Nagai journalism award.

Kyaw Ho said that the abbot also involved in the incident was yet to testify in the hearing. The two prosecution witnesses are both senior police officials from the government's Special Intelligence Bureau, and a deputy police chief who seized evidence.

In June, two members of the prayer group were handed sentences of one and a half years each after holding a prayer ceremony at a pagoda near to Rangoon division's Twante township.

They were charged under Section 295(a) which addresses "desecration of religious buildings and property".

The prayer campaign has been running for more than five years, and has been subjected to frequent intimidation by police in Burma.

Burma currently holds nearly 2,200 political prisoners, 430 of which are NLD members, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP).

Reporting by Nan Kham Kaew

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