Myanmar Kachin Baptist leaders jailed for 'helping' rebels

Yangon (AFP) –


Two Baptist leaders were sentenced to prison in Myanmar Friday on charges of supporting ethnic minority rebels in the war-torn northeast, in a trial slammed by rights groups as a cover-up for alleged military abuses.

The ethnic Kachin men were detained by soldiers in December 2016 after giving journalists information about a church allegedly hit by military airstrikes in northern Shan State.

The army accused the men of being "recruiters, informers and rumour-mongers" for the Kachin Independence Army, one of several ethnic minority militias locked in long-running conflicts with Myanmar's military along the country's restive frontiers.

On Friday a court in Shan State's Lashio sentenced Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a 67-year-old assistant pastor, to four years and three months in jail, according to watchdog Fortify Rights.

Langjaw Gam Seng, a 35-year-old church youth leader, was sentenced to two years and three months.

Both men were convicted under Myanmar's Unlawful Associations Act, a law frequently used by the former military junta to silence activists and journalists covering abuses in Myanmar's insurgency-hit border regions.

Pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat was also sentenced to defamation for an interview he gave to the media alleging the Myanmar army was responsible for the airstrikes, said David Baulk from Fortify Rights.

"What we've seen is a trial that should never have existed from day one. These two men have been on trial for exposing the military's crimes," Baulk told AFP.

Human Rights Watch also blasted the case, saying the government should focus on prosecuting a powerful military with a history of committing abuses, particularly against ethnic minorities.

Earlier this year three Myanmar journalists were charged with aiding insurgents after they reported on a different armed rebel group in Shan State.

The case fuelled concern of eroding press freedoms in the fledgling democracy, which was under brutal junta rule for 50 years until 2011.