- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

RANGOON, Burma | Burma’s courts continued a crackdown on activists Friday, handing out 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 attorneys 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 pro-democracy 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 Friday was Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira, who helped organize the protests, said a lawyer, who spoke on the 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.

Zarganar, whose name means “tweezers” and whose comedy routines are banned because of 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 gave interviews to foreign news outlets in which he criticized the junta’s slow response.

Zarganar was sentenced for violating the Electronics Act, which regulates all forms of electronic communication, said his attorney, Khin Htay Kywe. The comedian still faces other charges, she said.

Zarganar has been imprisoned several times before, including a three-week stint for providing aid to Buddhist monks during last year’s demonstrations.

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 attorney said.

Mr. Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested in 2003 for purportedly plotting to “overthrow the government through bombings and assassinations.” He was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death but was later given a reduced sentence and released in 2005 after serving 18 months.

Those sentenced recently included some 70 members of the opposition National League for Democracy party of detained Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Some of the most severe sentences were handed to 23 members of the 88 Generation Students group, veteran activists who have been spearheading nonviolent protests for the past several years.

On Thursday, well-known hip-hop singer Zeyar Thaw, a member of the band “Acid,” was jailed for six years, and 14 members of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party got 2 1/2 years each for calling for her release on her birthday in June, party spokesman Nyan Win said.

Ms. Zeyar Thaw is thought to be a leader of Generation Wave, an illegal student group formed in the wake of last year’s pro-democracy protests.

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