A court in Myanmar has sentenced the former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention Hkalam Samson, who was arrested and detained by the country's junta in December, to six years in prison despite calls from the United States government for his release.
A court in Myitkyina sentenced Rev. Samson under the Unlawful Association Act, the Penal Code and the Terrorism Act, according to the United Kingdom-based rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Samson, who now serves as Chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, was arrested on charges of meeting with members of an ethnic armed group and holding a prayer meeting with members of the parallel civilian government of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
CSW's Senior Analyst for East Asia Benedict Rogers called the sentencing "an outrageous travesty of justice."
"Reverend Dr. Samson is a completely non-violent Christian pastor and a brave and tireless advocate of justice, human rights and peace," said Rogers, author of three books on Myanmar and a friend of Rev. Samson.
The conflict between the military, locally known as Tatmadaw, and ethnic minority militias has escalated since the military's coup in February 2021. The ethnic militias have been supporting pro-democracy protesters.
"He has been jailed simply for courageously speaking out against the Myanmar military's barbaric atrocities perpetrated against the people of Myanmar," Rogers said.
Samson, who previously served as KBC president and secretary, leads the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, a group of local religious and political leaders who help foster communication between the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, and the local community.
The bishop arranged the funerals of more than 60 victims of the junta's airstrike on a KIO anniversary concert in Hpakant township last October. He also tried to arrange for the seriously injured to receive emergency medical treatment.
A month after the incident, he participated in a prayer meeting in Myitkyina, organized by the Myanmar Council of Churches, which represents the country's Christian groups, to commemorate the victims.
In February, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Samson's arrest in a press briefing.
"We are extremely concerned for his well-being and safety, and urge our partners and allies to join us in calling on the regime to drop all charges and immediately and unconditionally release Reverend Samson," Price said.
The junta has killed more than 3,200 people and arrested over 21,300 others as of Wednesday, according to The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
"The international community must speak out strongly to demand his immediate release from prison and intensify efforts to apply targeted sanctions against Myanmar's illegal military regime until all political prisoners are freed, the military ceases all attacks in the ethnic states and Myanmar is placed on a path of genuine federal democracy," Rogers said.
The Southeast Asian country is home to the world's longest Civil War, which began in 1948.
The conflict zones are along Myanmar's borders with India, Thailand and China.
Christians comprise just over 7% of the majority-Buddhist nation but are a majority in Chin State, which borders India, and Kachin State, which borders China. Christians also make up a substantial part of the population of Kayah State, which borders Thailand.
Last June, multiple reports, including by the United Nations, revealed that the junta brutally attacked and killed hundreds of children since the military coup.
Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said in a report at the time that "the junta's relentless attacks on children underscore the generals' depravity and willingness to inflict immense suffering on innocent victims in its attempt to subjugate the people of Myanmar."
"I received information about children who were beaten, stabbed, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to mock executions, and who had their fingernails and teeth pulled out during lengthy interrogation sessions," Andrews said.