YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A court in northern Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison on Wednesday after convicting them of illegal logging in a case that has already strained relations with Beijing.
Two Chinese minors received 10-year sentences for the same offense, while a woman in the group received an additional 15 years on a drug charge, said Khin Maung, the lawyer for the defendants. Life terms are generally treated as 20 years in Myanmar's judicial system.
Myanmar's army in January arrested the Chinese and some Myanmar nationals in Kachin state near the Chinese border, also seizing 436 logging trucks.
Chinese loggers in Myanmar send wood to China even though timber exports were banned in 2014. Analysts say the timber can be exported because the loggers make deals with local ethnic minority warlords and, according to some critics, local Myanmar military officers.
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. Khin Maung said one of the two judges in the court in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina announced that the maximum penalty was being applied because "he deemed effective punishment should be meted out."
The verdict quickly attracted attention in China, where the defendants have been a cause celebre since their arrests, with calls for the Chinese government to apply pressure for their release.
The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar told the state-run Beijing Times that it protested the sentences as too severe and that it had made solemn presentations with Myanmar over the matter.
The embassy said the workers had been deceived by criminals from both China and Myanmar to engage in illegal logging in Myanmar.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.