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Myanmar court sentences former UK envoy and her husband to one year in prison

Yangon / Taipei – Former British ambassador to Myanmar, Vicki Bowman, and her husband, Htin Lin, have been sentenced to a year in prison on immigration charges after a trial in Yangon, a diplomat familiar with the matter said.

Bauman and her husband Htin Lin, a famous Myanmar painter and former political prisoner, were sentenced on Friday after they were arrested in Yangon last week for alleged immigration offenses.

A memo from Myanmar’s military rulers accused Boman of violating the country’s immigration law and foreigner registration rules for failing to report to authorities last year when the couple temporarily moved from their registered address in Yangon to Kalu in Shan state.

Hittin Lin is accused of inciting “crime”.

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Local news website Myanmar Now reported that the couple appeared in court inside the notorious Insein prison on Thursday for a hearing, and they were sentenced on Friday.

The arrest of Bowman, a prominent advocate of responsible investment in Myanmar with years of experience living in the country, Htin Lin, has sent shockwaves through all business and diplomatic circles.

Speculation varies as to why they were arrested, with some suggesting that Bowman’s independent advocacy work caught the attention of the military regime.

However, some diplomats and analysts see the couple’s imprisonment as taking hostages that could be bartered in future talks.

“This is a diplomacy hostage,” former European Union ambassador to Myanmar Christian Schmidt wrote on social media following news of the couple’s arrest.

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Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said the concern now was that Boman and her husband would be used as a form of influence by Myanmar’s military rulers.

“The concern is for many people who know her, her friends and relatives in and outside Yangon, that she will become a pawn for the military to use because they have used other foreigners arrested since the military coup,” Cheng said.

Perhaps this is partly because the British government imposed more sanctions on companies linked to Myanmar’s junta last week, and that may become part of the equation in gaining their freedom. But for now, as far as we understand, she will be kept in Insein Prison for another year.”

Friends are also concerned that Hattin Lin, 55, is more likely to suffer in prison under the supervision of the military, which is notorious for torturing prisoners. Hattin Lin was a student protester during the 1988 uprising against the then military government, and spent more than six years in prison between 1998 and 2004.

The husband’s imprisonment is also likely to present a major test for the UK government.

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Britain has come under internal criticism for not moving quickly in the case of Iran’s imprisonment of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who spent six years in prison in Iran before being released earlier this year.

“This goes far beyond the special consulate issue,” a European diplomat who previously worked in Yangon told Al Jazeera.

The diplomat said Bauman is one of the main interfaces between Myanmar and foreign investors, advocates responsible business and plays a pivotal role in guiding economic development.

“All eyes are now on the UK government to do everything in their power to release her and Hein Lane as quickly as possible,” he added.

He certainly suggests the possibility of “hostage diplomacy”. It also highlights the junta’s extreme paranoia and utter neglect – or indifference – about the impact of its actions on the economy, said Scott Marcel, a former US ambassador to Burma. “They seem to see enemies everywhere.”

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A former UK ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2006, Bowman, 56, returned to Yangon and spent nearly a decade reforming the private sector and related government regulations in a way that respected human rights and international standards during the country’s decade of economic opening in the 2010s. She speaks Burmese fluently.

An Asian diplomat in Yangon said there were several possible reasons for the arrests and the timing, such as the UK’s refusal to accept the appointment of a new army ambassador to London, recent sanctions against the regime, and London’s decision to support the Rohingya’s crimes against them. The issue of humanity in the International Criminal Court.

On 25 August, the fifth anniversary of the military attack on the Rohingya community in Myanmar, the United Kingdom imposed sanctions on three entities linked to the military leadership.

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