YANGON • A court in Myanmar has sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life imprisonment for illegal logging, a court official said yesterday.
The court in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state in the north of the country, handed down sentences to 155 Chinese citizens in total.
Two of the convicted, who are minors, escaped life sentences and will serve 10 years in jail instead.
An official from Myitkyina's prison department confirmed the sentences. All will have a chance to file appeals, said the official, who declined to be identified.
However, the Beijing Times, quoting Chinese embassy officials in Myanmar, said the Chinese nationals were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and not life imprisonment. It confirmed that the two minors received jail terms of 10 years.
We think the 20-year jail sentence is too harsh. The embassy has made serious representations with the Myanmar side.
THE CHINESE EMBASSY in Myanmar. The Beijing Times, quoting Chinese embassy officials in Myanmar, has said the Chinese nationals were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and not life imprisonment.
Additionally, one convicted of drug possession was sentenced to 35 years in jail.
The embassy said the men were duped by Chinese and Myanmar criminal syndicates into carrying out illegal logging work and that they are in a pitiful predicament.
"We think the 20-year jail sentence is too harsh. The embassy has made serious representations with the Myanmar side," it added.
The individuals were arrested in January in a major crackdown on the country's lucrative illegal logging and timber trade launched by the military, police and forestry department. State media at the time said more than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized.
The loggers were sentenced under a 1963 law calling for jail terms of 10 years to life for anyone who steals or otherwise misuses or abuses public property.
Regions along Myanmar's porous border with China have long been hotbeds for the illegal trade in timber to feed Chinese demand.
The Myanmar authorities had banned the export of teak logs in April to reduce deforestation.
However, in remote border areas of Myanmar, especially in the north, illegal logging is still rampant, reported DPA news agency.
Between 1990 and 2010, the country's forest cover fell by about one-fifth, from 58 per cent of total area to 47 per cent, according to government data.
Much of Myanmar's jade is also believed to be illegally smuggled into China. China's voracious demand for Myanmar's raw materials has contributed to a degree of resentment in the country towards its giant northern neighbour.
Aye Myint Maung, deputy minister from the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, told Parliament in June that 10,000 tonnes of illegal timber had been seized from illegal loggers since January. Most of it was from Kachin state, he said.
Kachin state has seen an increase in conflict since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the
Myanmar military and autonomy-seeking ethnic Kachin rebels broke down.
•Additional reportingby Kor Kian Beng