By Hanna Hindstrom
The three Muslim men accused of raping and killing Thida Htwe – the Arakanese girl whose death sparked sectarian violence across Burma’s Arakan state this month – were sentenced to death by the District Court in Kyaukphyu in western Burma on Monday, according to lawyers.
Htet Htet (also known as Rawshe), Mahmud Rawphi (aka Hla Win) and Khochi (aka Myint Swe) were found guilty of raping, murdering and robbing Thida Htwe from Thabyaychaung village in Ramee Township on her way home from a sewing lesson on 28 May 2012.
Lawyers said the court heard testimonies from eight people, including Thida Htwe’s brother, in a trial that lasted less than two weeks. Htet Htet, accused of masterminding the plot, committed suicide in jail last week, but was handed the sentence posthumously in accordance with Burmese criminal law.
Thida Htwe’s controversial death unleashed long-simmering religious and ethnic tensions in Burma’s westernmost Arakan state this month, starting with the violent murder of ten Muslim pilgrims by an angry mob in the state capital Sittwe. It culminated in the country’s worst sectarian riots in decades, which has left at least 50 people dead, thousands of homes destroyed and more than 32,000 people displaced.
The violence has also thrown a spotlight on the plight of the stateless minority group, the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by the Burmese government and widely despised within Burmese society. Analysts say the riots represented a “symptom” of festering tensions and a state-sponsored policy of discrimination.
The verdict has brought mixed reactions in line with the increasingly polarised debate on the ongoing violence. Ba Shein, People’s Parliament representative in Kyaukphyu township commended the police force for its quick work.
“It is lucky to have this case solved in such a short period of time otherwise there would be other unwanted problems. They managed to arrest the culprits, seize evidence and hear witness accounts within about 10 days after the crime was committed – I would congratulate the police force their hard work.”
Many social media commentators have again responded to the verdict by lashing out against the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have expressed concern about both the speed and the legitimacy of the trial. “We condemn the imposition of the death penalty in all cases as cruel and inhumane treatment,” Phil Robertson, head of Human Rights Watch Asia division told DVB. “But we’ve also had no access to information about this case so there is no way to say whether the three men on trial are in fact guilty.”
“My concern would be whether there was any kind of proper judicial system,” added Chris Lewa, Director of the Arakan Project. “This was quite quick, so it seems like a move to try to calm the Rakhine population.”
She warned that the ruling might spark further unrest in Northern Arakan state, where reports are surfacing of mass arrests of young Rohingya men by state authorities since the fighting ebbed off on Friday.
“There is no longer communal violence in Maungdaw, this is state sponsored violence,” she said. “The situation has gotten really bad. The army and NaSaka have been conducting mass arrest of young Rohingya males. Some people have seen them transported in trucks in handcuffs and blindfolded and the worst is that no one knows why.”
She added that hundreds of young men have been trying to cross the border to Bangladesh, but most are being turned away. The Bangladeshi government continues to block refugees from fleeing the violence in Northern Arakan state, despite growing international pressure to let them in.
The sectarian violence has become a crucial litmus test for President Thein Sein’s reformist government. Last week, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi underscored the need for “rule of law” to address the violence, but faces accusations of sidestepping the Rohingya issue.
Robertson said that those involved in the mob attack that left ten Muslims dead in early June must also be brought to justice by authorities in order to avoid accusations of double standards.
The two sentenced men have seven days to appeal the ruling, but the case still needs to be presented to the Supreme Court for a final decision.