By BosNewsLife Asia Service
YANGON, BURMA (BosNewsLife)-- A Burmese court has sentenced two ethnic Kachin Baptist pastors to prison terms for "supporting rebels and defaming the military" after they guided journalists around a church which was bombed by the Burmese military, trial observers told BosNewsLife.
Pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, and Baptist youth leader Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, were detained by the army in northern Shan state in December after they were initially reported missing following heavy fighting between the government and a coalition of Kachin and three other ethnic guerrilla groups.
Christians said they helped journalists cover the aftermath of a military offensive in Mongko town where a Catholic church was destroyed in an airstrike in November 2016.
The military in Burma, also known as Myanmar, later accused them of providing support to an ethnic armed group.
On Friday, October 27, the Lashio court in Shan state sentenced Nawng Lat to 4 years and three months in prison and Gam Seng to 2 years and three months, BosNewsLife learned.
Lawyer Brang Di told media that the convictions and sentences after a nearly 9-month-long trial were unfair “as they were just pastors, they had nothing to do with armed groups.”
Trial observers said Nawng Lat received an additional two-year sentence for "defamation" following a December 2016 interview with Voice of America in which he reported on airstrikes conducted by the Burma Army.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) condemned the verdict. "This verdict is a serious miscarriage of justice," said CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas. "We urge the authorities in Burma to release Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, who have committed no crime," he told BosNewsLife in a statement. "We also call on the international community to raise their case with the government of Burma as a matter of urgency."
The prison sentences will reportedly take into account time served from the men’s transfer to civilian custody on January 22.
Defense lawyers said the prosecution’s case against the two men relied on statements during their time in military custody which was signed under “severe duress”.
Clashes between the Kachin Independence Army and Burma Army have been ongoing for six years following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. But even during those 17 years, fighting continued, BosNewsLife established in the area.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that about 100,000 civilians remain displaced by conflicts in Burma's Kachin and northern Shan states.