Myanmar jails 7 Muslims for up to 28 years for riots

Myanmar on Tuesday sentenced seven Muslims to prison terms ranging from two to 28 years in connection with religious violence in March that left dozens of people dead, a justice official said.

The defendants, who were spared the death penalty, were accused of the murder of a Buddhist monk in the central town of Meiktila that sparked unrest across the region, mostly targeting Muslims.

The suspects were jailed on charges including murder, incitement to murder, arson and damage to public property, Mandalay region advocate general Ye Aung Myint told AFP by telephone from Meiktila.

The main suspect received life imprisonment -- equivalent to 20 years -- and four more years for other charges, he said.

One of his accomplices was handed 10 years for the murder, and 18 years for other crimes including arson and damage to public property.

Their family members broke down in tears at the court after hearing the verdict, defence lawyer Thein Than Oo told AFP. "Whether they appeal depends on their relatives," he said.

According to the government, at least 44 people were killed and thousands left homeless after the wave of violence, which was apparently triggered by a quarrel in a gold shop.

Three Muslims including the gold shop owner were jailed for 14 years in April for assaulting a Buddhist customer.

So far no Buddhists have been convicted in connection with the unrest in Meiktila, but Ye Aung Myint insisted that both sides were being treated equally.

"We are sentencing people according to the law based on evidence presented at trial. We have no bias at all based on religion," he said.

A total of 87 people have been arrested in the Meiktila area including about 38 Buddhists, he said.

Attacks against Muslims -- who make up an estimated four percent of Myanmar's population -- have exposed deep fractures in the formerly junta-run country and cast a shadow over widely-praised political reforms.

Some monks were involved in the clashes, while others have led a nationalistic campaign calling for a boycott of Muslim-owned shops.

President Thein Sein, who sent the army to restore order, has vowed a tough response against those behind the violence, which he attributed to "political opportunists and religious extremists".

It followed Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year that left about 200 people dead, mostly minority Muslim Rohingya who are denied citizenship by Myanmar.

The verdicts come as rights group Physicians for Human Rights released a report detailing "horrific" violence in Meiktila targeting Muslims.

It quoted eyewitnesses who described a Buddhist mob -- including monks and assisted by the security forces -- hunting down and killing at least 20 children and four teachers from a Muslim school and injuring many more.

Witnesses recounted seeing one student being decapitated and another being set on fire, according to the US-based group, which aims to use medicine and science to stop human rights violations.

"Innocent children and adults were humiliated, beaten, and killed with complete impunity, which -- if not addressed -- will only lead to more human rights violations," said report author Holly Atkinson, who also directs the Human Rights Program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.