BANGKOK, Thailand — In a high-profile Myanmar court case deciding the fate of Muslims accused of killing a Buddhist monk — whose death spawned a bloody March riot — seven Muslim men received harsh sentences on Tuesday.
The verdict is apt to please those among the dominant Buddhist majority in Myanmar, formerly Burma, who have been swept up in a growing nationalist anti-Muslim fervor.
The defendants received prison terms ranging from two to 28 years, a justice official said. Among the charges: religious disrespect.
The monk's death in Mandalay Division was followed by an arson and killing spree that left entire Muslim quarters burned down in several cities, dozens dead and roughly 12,000 displaced, according to government figures.
It followed hundreds of deaths in 2012 along Myanmar's western coast where the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic group similar to Bengalis, have been driven out of cities by angry Buddhists.
The continuing attacks against Muslims — who make up an estimated 4 percent of Myanmar's population and are not recognized as citizens — have exposed deep fractures in the formerly junta-run country and cast a shadow over President Thein Sein's widely-praised political reforms.
According to a Reuters report published last week, apartheid-like policies are segregating minority Muslims in prison-like ghettos.
The sentences came just a day after Thein Sein met with US President Barack Obama in Washington to assure the White House that Myanmar is improving its human rights record.
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Obama praised Myanmar for taking steps toward reform — including the release of political prisoners — but said the former Western pariah has a long way to go.
"The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop," said Obama, according to White House transcripts, "and we are prepared to work in any way that we can with both the government of Myanmar and the international community to assure that people are getting the help that they need but, more importantly, that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term."
As the Associated Press reports, "no major cases involving Buddhist suspects have been announced."
The jail sentences handed down Tuesday came 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.
"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.
Asked why only Muslims had faced trial over the riots, Ye Aung Myint, the advocate general of the Mandalay region, told the Associated Press that the courts were starting with the initial incidents that triggered the violence, and those involved in later incidents would be tried at a later date.
"There is no discrimination in bringing justice. We dealt with the first two cases and 11 more cases involving Buddhists will be dealt with very soon," he told AP, adding that about 70 people will face charges for murder, arson and looting.
AFP contributed to this report.