Yangon, Myanmar. A court in Myanmar has sentenced to death two men in a rape-murder case that triggered a wave of communal violence in western Rakhine state, a government official said on Tuesday.
The region has been rocked by rioting, arson and a cycle of revenge attacks involving Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya this month, leaving dozens of people dead and prompting growing international concern.
The two defendants “were sentenced to death as they were found guilty of murder, rape and robbery,” the official told AFP. “The court told them they can appeal to the Supreme Court within seven days if they want.”
According to Amnesty International, no death row prisoner in Myanmar is known to have been executed since 1988.
State media had previously described three suspects in the case as Bengali Muslims — a term it uses to refer to the Rohingya, a stateless people viewed by the United Nations as among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
A third suspect hanged himself in prison earlier this month, according to the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
In apparent revenge for the attack, a mob of several hundred Buddhists beat 10 Muslims to death on June 3, mistakenly believing the perpetrators were among them.
About 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, according to the UN, mostly in Rakhine.
The Myanmar government considers them to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and view them with hostility.
Bangladesh, where an estimated 300,000 Rohingya live, has been turning back Rohingya boats arriving on its shores since the outbreak of unrest.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said on Saturday that 50 people had died with 54 injured between May 28 and June 14 in Rakhine, although the violence is believed to have abated since late last week.
Rohingya leaders say the real number of dead in remote villages could be much higher.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has warned the unrest could disrupt the nation’s fragile democratic reforms as it emerges from decades of army rule.
The whole of Rakhine state is under emergency rule with a heavy security presence. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the violence, which saw many homes burned to the ground.
Amnesty International urged the Myanmar government to address “decades of systemic discrimination against ethnic minority Rohingyas.”
In a statement released late on Monday, it said human rights abuses continued to take place among Buddhists, Muslims and state security forces in Rakhine.
Amnesty also called on the government to allow unfettered humanitarian access to displaced people.
“The basic humanitarian needs of these people must be met immediately, as many still lack adequate food, water, shelter, and medical attention,” it said.