A Myanmar court ordered a U.S. citizen on Wednesday to serve three years in prison for entering the military-ruled country with forged documents and undeclared foreign currency.
Nyi Nyi Aung, who was born in Myanmar and has campaigned for democracy in the country from abroad, faced a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison on a variety of charges that his lawyers argued should not apply to foreigners.
The 40-year-old was arrested on September 3 on arrival at Yangon’s international airport. He was initially accused of plotting to stir up political unrest, which he denied.
His trial was held inside Myanmar’s notorious Insein Prison, where a judge on Wednesday convicted him on three charges and sentenced him to three years’ hard labour.
He was sentenced to three years in prison for forging a national identity card, one year for possession of undeclared foreign currency, and one year for violating Myanmar’s so-called Resident Registration Act -under which he was accused of failing to renounce his Myanmar citizenship when becoming an American citizen and failure to inform authorities of his new address.
“He will serve the sentences concurrently, meaning he serves three years in prison,” said defence lawyer Nyan Win, who said lawyers planned to immediately appeal the ruling.
As a teenager in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, Nyi Nyi Aung helped organize students during Myanmar’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising and later fled to the United States. According to dissident groups he is a resident of Maryland.
His reason for returning to the country was not clear, but there has been speculation he hoped to see his mother and two cousins who are serving jail terms of up to 65 years for their pro-democracy activities.
“His morale is good and his spirits are high,” his lawyer Nyan Win said. Reporters were not allowed inside the courtroom.
The Washington, D.C.-based law firm, Freedom Now, which represents pro-democracy dissidents in a number of countries and has taken up Nyi Nyi Aung’s case, issued a statement that called on the United States to make his release a priority.
“Nyi Nyi Aung has been illegally and unjustly convicted on sham charges because of his tireless advocacy for democracy and human rights in Burma,” said the statement.
The case comes at an awkward time for the United States, which recently eased its policy on Myanmar. Washington has modified a long-standing policy of isolating the junta in favour of engagement through high-level talks. Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei condemned the ruling and urged the junta to release Nyi Nyi Aung, also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin.
“We are deeply concerned by the unjustified conviction,” said Mr. Mei. “We believe the charges against Kyaw Zaw Lwin were politically motivated.”
Nyi Nyi Aung’s fiancee appealed for a stepped up U.S. role in the case. “All of Burma knows that these are bogus charges,” said Wa Wa Kyaw.
“The junta is looking to stifle Nyi Nyi just as they have the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma. I can only hope that the government of the United States won’t let Burma illegally imprison its own citizen,” she said.
Nyi Nyi Aung staged a 12-day hunger strike in December to protest conditions of political prisoners in Myanmar, according to human rights groups.
The junta has been widely criticized for holding pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, under detention.
Lawyers said they hoped Nyi Nyi Aung would be deported, as was another jailed American, John Yettaw, whose case attracted considerably more attention.
Mr. Yettaw was sentenced to seven years in prison in August for sneaking into Ms. Suu Kyi’s home, but released less than a week later after a visit to the country by U.S. Senator Jim Webb.