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Comedian gets 45-year term as Burma punishes activism

Associated Press / November 22, 2008
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RANGOON, Burma - Burma's courts continued a crackdown on activists yesterday, giving a 45-year prison sentence to a comedian who went to the delta to help cyclone victims and criticized the junta's slow relief response.

Comedian and activist Zarganar, whose birth name is Maung Thura, was among at least 100 people to receive sentences of two to 65 years since early November. Many of the trials were held in closed sessions, sometimes without defense lawyers or family present.

The military government's wave of harsh sentences has been condemned worldwide by Western governments and human rights groups. They contend that the sentences make a mockery of the ruling junta's professed plan to restore democracy with a 2010 election.

The government holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007 - before last year's prodemocracy demonstrations, according to international human rights groups.

Monks inspired and led protests that the army violently suppressed in September 2007. The authorities began their crackdown by raiding several monasteries in Rangoon in the middle of the night and hauling away monks.

Among those sentenced yesterday was Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira, who helped organize the protests, said a lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing the government. The monk's 12-year sentence and prison terms for earlier charges brought his total to 68 years in jail.

Burma's military, which has held power since 1962, brooks no dissent. It frequently arrests artists and entertainers regarded as opposing their regime.

Zarganar, whose comedy routines are banned for their jokes about the junta, and several other activists delivered donations of relief supplies to the Cyclone Nargis-shattered Irrawaddy delta. The May cyclone killed more than 84,000 people.

Zarganar was arrested in June after he criticized the junta in interviews with foreign news outlets. He was sentenced for violating the Electronics Act, which regulates all forms of electronic communication, said his lawyer, Khin Htay Kywe. He still faces other charges.

Three associates were tried with him. Sportswriter Zaw Thet Htwe and video journalist Thant Zin Aung were given 15 years each and face further charges, while Tin Maung Aye got 29 years, Zarganar's lawyer said.

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