YANGON, Myanmar – Courts in military-ruled Burma delivered a devastating blow Tuesday to the country's pro-democracy movement, sentencing at least two dozen activists to harsh prison terms including 65 years behind bars.
Fourteen people from the Generation 88 Students group received 65-year terms, while 10 rank-and-file members of a provincial branch of the opposition National League for Democracy party were given eight to 24 years.
The activists were apparently all involved in protests last year that led to massive pro-democracy demonstrations, which were put down with force by the army. According to U.N. estimates, at least 31 people were killed and thousands of demonstrators detained. Many fled the country formerly called Myanmar or went underground.
The severity of the sentences — most or all of which were handed down in closed court sessions — suggests the ruling junta will pay little heed to calls from the United Nations and many Western nations to make its self-styled transition to democracy more fair and inclusive.
International human rights groups say Burma's generals now hold more than 2,100 political prisoners, compared with nearly 1,200 in June 2007 before the pro-democracy demonstrations.
The prisoners include Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the opposition National League of Democracy party, who is under house arrest.
In a separate hearing held at Insein Prison, labor activist Su Su Nway was sentenced to 12 and 1/2 years imprisonment for her political activities, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the NLD.
She was arrested in November last year as she tried to paste up a leaflet near a Yangon hotel where a visiting U.N. human rights investigator had been staying.
The European Union said Monday the multiparty elections scheduled for 2010 will be seen as illegitimate unless the junta frees all political prisoners. Candidates of Suu Kyi's party won the most seats in a 1990 general election, but the military refused to let it take power.
EU foreign ministers also urged the military government to "open a political process based on an inclusive dialogue" with all opposition parties and minority ethnic groups in the run-up to the vote.
The junta has announced the 2010 polls as part of its "roadmap to democracy." But opposition groups and other critics dismiss it as a sham meant to perpetuate military rule. The military has held authoritarian power in the Southeast Asian nation since 1962.
Tuesday's harshest sentences were handed to members of the 88 Generation Students group, including five women.
Many of the group's members had been at the forefront of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the military. After they were freed, they resumed their political activities, and spearheaded open and legal protests against the government.
"I heard from sources close to the prison that my son and 13 others were given 65-year prison sentences this morning in a closed-door trial," said Nyunt Nyunt Oo, mother of 31-year-old Pandeik Tun. "No family members or defense lawyers were present at the trial."
Nyunt Nyunt Oo said her son and others were charged under a variety of laws including ones declaring demonstrations, speeches, and written statements illegal.
Asked if she is going to appeal the verdict against her son, she said, "I don't think any effort will make a difference because the judgment is one-sided and this was what the authorities had decided to do."
A court sentenced a prominent blogger Monday to 20 and 1/2 years in jail for his Internet activities, while in another trial a poet was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for concealing the text of an anti-government slogan in one of his works.