YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Myanmar court sentenced seven Buddhists to between three and 15 years in jail for their roles in a massacre at an Islamic boarding school that left dozens of students and teachers dead, while a Muslim convicted in one related killing received a life sentence.
In all, 24 Buddhists and five Muslims have been sentenced to jail this week for their roles in sectarian rioting March 20 and 21 in the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila. The violence killed at least 43 people and left 12,000 displaced, most of them Muslim.
Previously, few Buddhists had been prosecuted in connection with a wave of sectarian violence that has left more than 250 people dead and 140,000 others fleeing their homes over the past year in this predominantly Buddhist country. Muslims have been prosecuted more frequently, even though they make up the vast majority of the victims.
The state-run Keymon daily said eight people — seven Buddhists and one Muslim — were convicted Wednesday in Meikhtila district court for crimes connected to the massacre at the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School, where 36 of the deaths from the March rioting occurred.
Buddhist mobs torched the school, Muslim businesses and all but one of the city's 13 mosques following a dispute between a Muslim and a Buddhist at a gold shop and the burning death of a Buddhist monk by four Muslim men. While security forces stood by, a mob attacked Muslims with machetes, metal pipes, chains and stones as they tried to escape the burning school, leaving 32 teenage students and four teachers dead.
Tin Hlaing, a local reporter present during the hearings, told The Associated Press that four of the eight were found guilty of murder and causing other injuries, getting between 10 and 15 years in jail.
He did not provide details about their roles in the slaughter but said the other four convicted were involved in lesser offenses. The Keymon daily said the seven Buddhists received sentences of three to 15 years, but offered no details about the Muslim's case.
Tin Hlaing also said four Muslim men on Tuesday received sentences of at least seven years in prison — with one getting a life sentence — for their roles in the murder of a 19-year-old university student during the unrest.
The district court also sentenced 10 Buddhist men Wednesday to one to nine years for their involvement in the death of a Muslim man, and a township court sentenced six men and one woman, all Buddhists, to two years' imprisonment each for damaging the gold shop.
There have been several earlier sentencings, in Meikhtila and elsewhere, but the vast majority involved Muslim defendants. The Meikhtila district chairman, Tin Maung Soe, said most of the 73 people charged with crimes related to the rioting there are Buddhists.
Asked why Buddhists were given lighter sentences than some of the Muslims, Meikhtila district legal officer Khin Win Phyu said the sentences were handed down "based on the testimonies of the witnesses."
"The courts passed their verdict according to law and there is no bias or privilege toward any group," she said.
Sectarian violence in Myanmar began in Rakhine state just over a year ago in the country's west, then spread in March to the central towns of Meikthila and Okkan. The attacks, and the government's inability to stop them, have marred the Southeast Asian country's image abroad as it moves toward democracy and greater freedom following nearly five decades of military rule.