US citizen given 3 years' hard labour in Burma

Feb 10, 2010 (DVB), Burmese-born US citizen Nyi Nyi Aung was this morning sentenced to three years' imprisonment with hard labour by a Rangoon courtroom, his legal counsel announced.

"He's going to be forced to spend three years in prison on sham charges, and we're calling on the ruling junta [in Burma] to immediately release him and deport him back to the US," said Beth Shwanke, legislative counsel at the Washington-based Freedom Now, which has been advocating for his release.

The sentence, passed in a courtroom inside Rangoon's Insein prison, was commuted from five years' with hard labour. He was found guilty of forging a national identity card, failing to declare currencies at customs, and failing to renounce his Burmese citizenship.

Forty-year-old Nyi Nyi Aung, also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin, was arrested in September last year upon arrival at Rangoon airport. Critics of the Burmese junta say however that the charges were a ploy to punish him for activist work carried out since he fled Burma to the US in 1993.

Shwanke said that the sentencing "unquestionably" stemmed from his activism. "[The junta] has been tracking him for a while now, and his profile was raised by the recent handing of a petition to the UN on political prisoners," she told DVB.

His US-based fiancé, Wa Wa Kyaw, said in a statement that "all of Burma knows that these are bogus charges".

"The junta is looking to stifle Nyi Nyi just as they have the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma. I can only hope that the Government of the United States won't let Burma illegally imprison its own citizen."

A US embassy spokesperson in Rangoon told DVB that "we believe the charges against Kyaw Zaw Lwin were politically motivated".

"We continue to urge Burmese authorities to abide by international rules, laws and standards by releasing him and allowing him to return home to the US," he said.

The spokesperson however refused to comment on whether the sentencing would affect new US policy to Burma, which advocates engagement in place of isolation.

The last time a US citizen made headlines in Burma was in May last year when John Yettaw swam across a Rangoon lake and entered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house-cum-prison.

Judges found Suu Kyi guilty of "sheltering" Yettaw, and sentenced her to a further 18 months under house arrest. Yettaw was initially given a seven-year sentence with hard labour, before a successful intervention by senior US official, Jim Webb, who flew to Burma and secured his release.

Shwanke said that they could "only hope" for a similar outcome, but that "with Nyi Nyi it's a little different to John Yettaw because he is Burmese-American, and [the junta] sees him as a really big threat to the junta, with his democracy activism".

The US has said that all political prisoners should be released as a prerequisite for free and fair elections this year.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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