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Myanmar sentences U.S. citizen to prison

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by Staff Writers
Yangon, Myanmar (UPI) Feb 12, 2009
A Myanmar court sentenced naturalized U.S. citizen Nyi Nyi Aung to three years in jail following a conviction on fraud and forgery charges.

But his lawyers vowed to fight on, a BBC report said. "We will appeal the sentence," said Nyan Win, who also represents Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy advocate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and winner of the 1990 national election whose results were nullified by the ruling military.

Nyi's sentence for forging an identity card, failing to declare currency at customs and violating immigration laws was handed down despite calls for his release from U.S. politicians and lawyers, human rights groups and others.

Nyi, 40, also goes by the name Kyaw Zaw Lwin and is a native of Myanmar, which was called Burma until the ruling military changed the name in 1989.

He is a noted pro-democracy activist. The former Gaithersburg, Md., resident traveled from Thailand to New York in June to deliver a petition with nearly 700,000 signatures to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special adviser on Burma. The petition called for Myanmar's junta to release 2,000 political prisoners.

Nyi comes from a family noted for its pro-democracy work, according to a description by The Irrawaddy, a news organization staffed by exiled Myanmar journalists in Thailand. Nyi's mother, Daw San San Tin, 60, and two cousins were arrested and imprisoned for their roles in the pro-democracy movement the Saffron Revolution in 2007. San was sentenced to five years in prison. His cousin was sentenced to 65 years and her husband to seven years.

Nyi and his family had braced themselves for a sentence of up to 12 years in jail.

The sentence ends what The New York Times has called the "unusual case" of Nyi. He arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1988 but since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2002 he had made four trips to Myanmar. He gave up a 9-to-5 job in the relative comfort of the suburbs of Washington to campaign for democracy in his native Myanmar with the Free Burmese Political Prisoners Now campaign in Thailand.

The computer science graduate was arrested likely because the government had singled him out for his advocacy efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar, said Aung Din, head of the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, a human rights group. "If any of us had known he was returning, we would have stopped him," Aung told the Times.

He was questioned by police upon arriving Sept. 3 in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. He was traveling from Bangkok, where he had been based, and was returning to Myanmar to visit his ill mother in prison, his fiancee, Wa Wa Kyaw who is also his Washington lawyer, told the BBC.

Nyi was allegedly deprived of food, sleep and medical treatment at times and had no access to U.S. consular services for his first two weeks under detention. He was also on a hunger strike for a period.

A lengthy Sept. 23 report in the government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar claimed that police arrested over three weeks several people, including Nyi, "on a tip-off given by duty-conscious people." The report claimed Nyi provided "more than $50,000 each year to internal anti-government elements" and while in Myanmar "held discussions with an armed group taking advantage of the influence of a certain big country."

Nyi was also heavily involved in helping monks organize anti-government activities, the report said, "out of disloyalty to his mother land and people, (he) planned to instigate unrest and launch terrorist attacks."

Nyi's jail term comes after several Myanmar journalists received prison sentences in recent months. At the end of January, Reporters Without Borders condemned the jailing of a second video journalist within four weeks. It said the 13-year jail sentence passed on Ngwe Soe Lin shows the junta's "phobia of uncontrolled video reporting."

Less than a month before, a video reporter working for the Myanmar exile radio and TV station Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, was convicted, as well as his helper, who was ordered for spend 20 years in prison for handing video material to the station.

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