Beijing has lodged a diplomatic protest after a Burmese court sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life imprisonment for illegal logging in Kachin State. Two others, who are minors, were both handed a 10-year sentence.
The group was arrested earlier this year during a crackdown on illegal logging activities near the Chinese border. They were charged on Wednesday with misusing state property, a crime which carries a prison sentence of between ten years to life.
Chinese embassy spokesperson Pan Xuesong insisted that the loggers had been lured into Burma by “some Chinese and Burmese unlawful activists”, but did not specify who he believed these activists were.
He added that a Chinese official had been dispatched to speak with the Burmese government on the matter.
The decision has also sparked outrage across China, with netizens, politicians and media workers condemning the harsh sentences.
“Beijing has asked Burma to deal with this case in a lawful, reasonable and justified manner according to their circumstances, and return those people to China as soon as possible,” announced Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang at a press conference on Wednesday.
“This is obviously a political decision,” wrote one Chinese netizens. “We should get them back to China.”
Meanwhile, some confusion has arisen regarding the law with which the group was prosecuted.
Most media organisations have reported that all of the 155 were charged under Section 6(a) of the Public Property Protection Act, although officials and experts are now questioning if that was the case.
“It is unclear through media reports which piece of legislation was used to charge these illegal loggers,” said Kyaw Min San, a national legal advisor with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
“The Public Property Protection Act 1947 does not provide for life imprisonment. However, a 1963 socialist-era statute, loosely translated as the Common People’s Property Protection Act, includes life imprisonment.”
Since Wednesday’s sentencing, relatives of the defendants have called the sentences “unfair”, as some members of the group had only entered Burma for the first time when they were arrested in January, instead of on multiple occasions as the court heard.
“I am not lying, she only went into Burma with the Chinese boss once,” said a 63-year-old Burmese woman who claimed to be one of the convicted loggers’ aunt.
“She is the mother of three children. All of them were studying at school before she was arrested, and now one of them needs to leave school to earn money for the rest of the family.”
Prosecutor Naw Ja said that there had been no external pressure from either the Chinese or the Burmese side which would affect the court’s decision. He added that the case would not damage the relationship between the two countries, as the court had heard sufficient evidence to be sure of the Chinses nationals’ guilt.
The Burmese court has pledged not to interfere with the judicial process.
Vani Sathisan, an international advisor with the ICJ, stressed the need for accountability in the case.
“Myanmar must ensure accountability, but it must do so in a fair and non-discriminatory manner in order to uphold the rule of law,” she said.
“While prosecution is an important step in tackling illegal logging, this must not shift the focus away from widespread corruption and the lack of transparency around resource extraction projects linked to crony companies which have ties to the military. These still hide the extent of the illegal logging problem in the country.”
According to the court, more than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized in the raid, as well as an excavator, trailers and cranes.
It is unclear whether the loggers will appeal their sentences.