A court in military-ruled Myanmar has jailed a Japanese documentary filmmaker for seven years for for encouraging dissent against the military and breaking communications laws.
Toru Kubota was arrested in July along with two Myanmar citizens after taking photos and video at an anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
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The 26-year-old was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison for “incitement” and seven years for violating a law on telecommunications, a Japanese foreign ministry official said, citing the filmmaker’s lawyer. The jail terms will be served concurrently so he will serve a maximum of seven years.
A court hearing on an immigration charge is scheduled for October 12, the official said.
“We have been asking Myanmar authorities for Mr Kubota’s early release, and we intend to keep on doing so,” the ministry official said.
Myanmar was plunged into crisis in February 2021 when the military, under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, detained leading members of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and seized power. The coup prompted a wave of protests with some civilians now joining armed groups to fight against the military.
Japan is one of the country’s leading donors and has longstanding relations with the armed forces.
It announced last month, however, that it would end a training programme for the Myanmar military after the execution of four anti-coup activists in July.
Some 2,336 people have been killed by the military since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners which has been tracking the crackdown, and more than 12,500 people are in detention. Charges of incitement and dissent have been widely used in the military’s crackdown on opponents.
Rights groups condemned the verdict on Kubota, who has previously made documentaries on Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority and worked with media organisations including Vice Japan.
Amnesty International said Myanmar was “cementing its reputation” as one of the world’s top jailers of journalists.
“Filming a protest is not a crime,” Ming Yu Hua, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for campaigns said in a statement, urging the military to release Kubota and allow him to return home.
“It is extremely dangerous to be a journalist in Myanmar today, where military authorities regularly trample on the right to freedom of information and media. Since seizing power in the coup last year, they have banned media outlets, arrested, beaten, sexually assaulted and even killed journalists in custody.”
Kubota is the fifth foreign journalist to be detained in Myanmar, after Americans Nathan Maung and Danny Fenster, Robert Bociaga of Poland and Yuki Kitazumi of Japan, all of whom were eventually freed and deported.
Fenster, who was held in May last year as he attempted to leave the country, faced a closed-door trial inside Yangon’s Insein prison where he also faced charges of “incitement”, as well as unlawful association and breaching visa rules.
He was sentenced to 11 years in prison before being pardoned.