A Myanmar court on Tuesday sentenced a Myanmar national to 20 years in jail for working on a hemp plantation operated by a U.S. citizen, deemed illegal by police because it grew cannabis, a local police official said.
Shein Latt was arrested on April 22, 2019, during a raid of the 20-acre plantation on an industrial estate in Ngunzun township of central Myanmar’s Mandalay region. Also arrested were American entrepreneur John Frederic Todoroki and Shunlei Myat Noe, a Myanmar woman who served as a translator.
The Myingyan District Court in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region handed down the prison term to Shein Latt, a supervisor who installed the plantation’s irrigation system, under two sections of the Anti-Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances Law, for growing prohibited cannabis plants, said police officer Zaw Aung.
Shunlei Myat Noe was freed in February after a court dismissed her case following a ruling that she had played no part in the hemp farm’s operations.
Authorities released Todoroki on bail of 325 million kyats (U.S. $221,600) in July 2019 for medical reasons. But he failed to appear at several subsequent court hearings and has reportedly left Myanmar.
The U.S. Embassy has refused to issue any information about him.
Todoroki’s attorneys have told the Myanmar media that they lost contact with their client in November, according to an Associated Press report, and the court has issued an arrest warrant for him and ordered that his bail be forfeited.
Six days after the arrest of the trio, Mandalay region’s chief minister told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his government had granted permission to Todoroki’s firm, III M Global Nutraceutical Co., to grow fiber plants for one year.
At that time, attorney Thein Than Oo said the hemp plants were being grown for use in scientific research for possible drugs to treat cancer, and not to produce marijuana.
“The whole case has been built on unconfirmed accusations” he told RFA Tuesday. “They wrote to the Mandalay regional government for official permission and got it. They believe the business would make the farmers rich.”
Myanmar law does not distinguish between hemp, which contains non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD) that is sometimes used medicinally, and marijuana, which contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering ingredient found in cannabis.
Drug abuse authorities determined that five U.S. citizens still at large also had a hand in the hemp farm operations.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translation by Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.