YANGON, Myanmar — A Myanmar court sentenced two ethnic Kachin Baptist pastors to prison terms on Friday on charges of supporting rebels and defaming the military, their lawyers said.
The two were detained by the army in northern Shan state in December after they were initially reported missing following heavy fighting area between the government and a coalition of Kachin and three other ethnic guerrilla groups.
Pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, and Baptist youth leader Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, helped journalists cover the aftermath of a military offensive in Mongko town where a Catholic church was bombed and destroyed in an airstrike in November 2016. The military later accused them of providing supports to an ethnic armed group.
After a nearly 9-month-long trial, the Lashio court in Shan state sentenced Nawng Lat to 4 years and 3 months in prison and Gam Seng to 2 years and 3 months.
Lawyer Brang Di said the convictions and sentences were unfair “as they were just pastors, they had nothing to do with armed groups.”
Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights, an international rights group, in a joint statement called for their immediate release, saying the pastors were being prosecuted for exposing the military’s crimes.
The military has been accused of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.
“How can this be fair to our community? There is no justice for us and this is not fair,” said Zau Ra, a Kachin Baptist leader who served together with the pastors in the same community. “We are pastors and we clearly don’t have weapons and we help whoever is in need. The two pastors were simply helping the journalists.”