Muslim men accused of murdering a monk, believed to be the first killing in the March unrest, walk out of court in Meikhtila on April 24, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj)
The district court of Meikhtila has filed murder charges against six Muslims who were arraigned this week for allegedly killing a monk in the central Burma town in March.
The six accused—Myo Htun Htun, Pho Cho, Myo Nyunt Oo, Zaw Htet Naing, Myat Ko Ko and Myo Win, a.k.a. Dar Gi Gan—were charged on Monday with unlawful assembly leading to rioting, religious offenses, murder and assisting murder.
“Among the six, Myat Ko Ko confessed that he killed the monk by stabbing [him],” said Thein Than Oo, a lawyer for some of the defendants, including Myat Ko Ko.
He added that a seventh Muslim suspect, 16-year-old Nyi Nyi Naing, would be prosecuted in Meikhtila’s juvenile court as he is underage. “That means he could avoid a heavy sentence because the juvenile court can only hand down a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment,” Thein Than Oo said.
The court began hearing evidence against the suspects two weeks ago. The court heard from four of the accused and the prosecution’s final witnesses at Monday’s hearing. Hearings for the other two suspects will be held on Wednesday.
The court will likely wrap up testimony from the defendants’ witnesses on Wednesday as well.
All of those facing charges are Muslims who are accused of killing the Buddhist monk U Thawbita on March 20, setting off inter-communal violence between local adherents of the respective religions. The unrest was initially triggered by a dispute earlier that day between merchants and Buddhist customers at a Muslim-owned gold shop in the town.
They could face the death penalty if found guilty, according to lawyer Than Aung.
Under current law, the unlawful assembly and religious offenses charges are each subject to maximum sentences of two years in prison, while the murder and assisting murder charges carry the death penalty as their maximum sentences.
Than Aung said the punishments could vary depending on the evidence presented and other considerations of the presiding judges.
“We have to wait for the court decision, we cannot exactly tell yet how long the sentences for them might be,” he said, adding that the accused would have a chance to appeal any court verdict.
Witnesses earlier told The Irrawaddy that a group of Muslims attacked the monk while he was riding a motorbike, sometime after the gold shop altercation. The Buddhist cleric died in hospital, unleashing mobs of angry Buddhists in the region some 130 kilometers north of the capital Naypyidaw.
Three days of ensuing rioting killed more than 40 people, and destroyed hundreds of homes across 11 townships in Mandalay Division and Pegu Division.
On April 11, the two owners and an employee from the gold shop were each sentenced to 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, robbery, attempted injury, and aiding and abetting crimes.
The police said the three Muslims convicted, as well as the seven suspects currently on trial, are among a total of 70 people, comprised of 28 Muslims and 42 Buddhists, who were arrested for their alleged roles in the riots.
No Buddhists have yet been charged in connection with the violence.
According to government reports, 43 people were killed during the clashes, while 86 people were injured and 1,355 houses, shops and other buildings were destroyed.
About 12,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced in the violence, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The Irrawaddy reporter Sanay Lin contributed to this report.