All 16 were arrested in raids on their monasteries on October 6 last year, accused of participating in monk-led demonstrations that ended after a bloody crackdown in late September.
According to witnesses, police prevented family members from approaching the detained clerics—who had been stripped of their robes and dressed in traditional longyi—as they were taken into the courthouse.
“I met [their relatives] at the courthouse,” said one witness. “They were so poor themselves that they could only bring small offerings—just a cup of tea and a cheroot.”
Another witness said that several of the accused were in extremely poor physical condition.
“One nun in her eighties, Daw Ponnami, had to struggle to walk because she is half-paralyzed. She had to drag her feet to get to the bar to face charges,” the witness said, adding that the nun’s normally shaven head was covered with short white hair.
“The older monks and nuns looked physically exhausted, and one of the elder monks was suffering from a skin disease,” the witness said.
One paralyzed 70-year-old monk was unable to answer any of the questions put to him by the judge, according to the witness.
Aung Kyaw Oo, of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), said all 16 were charged with “defamation of religion” under sections 292, 295 and 295(a) of Burma’s criminal code. They were also charged with “misuse of the monastery as a guesthouse.”
The monks and nuns have been held in Insein Prison in Rangoon since October 7 last year. This was their fifth appearance in court.
According to AAPP, there are 196 monks and 10 nuns currently being held in Burma’s prisons. None of those who played a leading role in last year’s protests have had public court appearances since they were taken into custody.
Meanwhile, sources in Rangoon reported that 7 activists involved in the September uprising had also been taken to court. The 7, including All Burma Federation of Student Unions leader Sithu Maung, were charged under section 124(a) of the criminal code with sedition and inciting others to commit offenses against public tranquility.
According to AAPP, there are more than 1,850 political prisoners in Burma.