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Myanmar sentences 3 Muslims for sectarian violence

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April 12, 2013 05:59 AM EST | AP

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YANGON, Myanmar — A court has sentenced three Muslims to 14-year prison terms for their role in an outbreak of sectarian violence that shook Myanmar last month, an official said Friday.

The convictions issued Thursday are the first reported since several days of anti-Muslim unrest in the central city of Meikhtila left more than 40 people dead and more than 12,000 displaced, most of them Muslim.

The three were convicted of theft and causing grievous bodily harm, Advocate-General Ye Aung Myint said by telephone from Meikhtila. State prosecutors say they are building 13 separate cases against dozens of detained people allegedly involved in the unrest, including both Buddhists and Muslims.

The trio sentenced Thursday included the Muslim owner and two employees of a gold shop where a quarrel with several Buddhist customers broke out over the appraisal of a golden hair clip, which was allegedly damaged at the store. A fight broke out and the shop owner was accused of striking one of the customers on the head.

The argument triggered a wave of anti-Muslim violence across the city that left whole Muslim neighborhoods in flames and charred bodies in the streets. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore order. Sectarian violence spread to several towns afterward, but has since subsided.

No Buddhists have been convicted so far.

A judicial official in Meikhtila said the next trial over the violence, due to start April 22, would decide the fate of seven people allegedly involved in the killing of a Buddhist monk on March 20. If found guilty, the seven could face the death penalty.

Containing the violence has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalization after nearly half a century of military rule.