source from Irrawaddy news, July 13, 2010,
A court in Kolkata [Calcutta], India, has sentenced 34 Burmese political exiles who have already been in detention for more than 10 years to 15 months imprisonment and a fine of 6,000 rupees [US $130] each, according to local sources.
The detainees were arrested in 1998 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during a joint Indian military exercise codenamed “Operation Leech,” which also netted a large cache of arms, ammunition and explosives. Twenty-four of the detainees are members of the National United Party of Arakan and the remaining 10 are members of the Karen National Union.
Tint Swe, a New Delhi-Based minister of the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma, the Burmese government in exile, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the detainees will not have to serve their sentences, but they will have to pay the fine.
“It is difficult to find money here,” he said. “We could only pay the fines for two of the exiles at the court today. We have to pay a total of 204,000 rupees [$4360], altogether,” he said, adding that the remaining 32 detainees would have to stay in jail a further eight months as they do not have the money.
Tin Swe said even if the fines were paid the court said it would not release the detainees because they had entered the country illegally.
The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charged the 34 political detainees with possessing invalid papers, smuggling weapons and explosives and attempting to send them to Indian insurgent groups in northeast India.
However, Akshay Sharma, a defense lawyer for the detainees, said: “The CBI couldn’t find any incriminating evidence against them, which is why the case is not strong.
“They shouldn’t need to be held in jail longer because they have already been detained for more than 10 years. The court should free them, but it wants to hold them for no reason,” he said, adding that he had no idea when the court would release them.
“India is a democratic country with a very good judicial system,” he said. “But, sometimes prosecutors abuse the system. It is most unfortunate that the detainees have already spent so long in jail.”
Held without charge for more than eight years in the Andaman islands, the detainees claim they had reached a deal with Indian intelligence allowing them to establish a base on Landfall Island in the Nicobar and Andaman archipelago in exchange for providing intelligence on Chinese naval activities in the Andaman Sea.
They claim the deal was broken by Indian intelligence officials but after intervention by the Burmese military regime, Indian authorities killed six of their leaders one day after the Burmese group arrived on Landfall Island.
Though it is unclear when the Indian government will release them, democracy activists in India hope that the government will hand the detainees over to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The 34 detainees have asked not to be sent back to Burma.
Until 1990, India supported the cause of democracy in Burma but then adopted a “Look East Policy” to counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. A closer relationship was developed between India and Burma, trade increased and India supplied the Burmese regime with military hardware.
Related Article: Going Rogue in the Andaman Sea