Rachel Goldwyn sang a protest song in Burma. Yesterday she was given seven years' hard labour Burma gives British woman activist seven years hard labour for lone pro-democracy protest

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THE MOTHER of the democracy activist Rachel Goldwyn spoke of the family's feelings of helplessness and distress yesterday after her daughter was sentenced to seven years with hard labour for staging a solo protest against the military government in Burma.

"We are desperately upset," said Dr Charmian Goldwyn at her home in south- west London. "We thought she would get a suspended sentence. We really didn't think there would be this savage, draconian, horrible sort of sentence. I don't know if I believe it yet."

Discussions with the Burmese ambassador in the past few days had led the family to believe clemency would be shown, she added. But now the embassy, in the country which the junta has renamed Myanmar, will not even tell them when visas will be ready so they can visit Ms Goldwyn, 28. She was arrested after chaining herself to a lamp-post, shouting pro- democracy slogans and singing a pro-democracy song in the Burmese capital of Rangoon two weeks ago. She was charged under Burma's Emergency Provisions Act, used to stifle dissent.

At the trial in Rangoon,Ms Goldwyn managed to look relaxed and cheerful during most of the proceedings. Wearing a turquoise T-shirt and Burmese sarong, or longyi, she admitted the facts of her case but denied that her motive was to disrupt stability.

"My demonstration was to show the extent of control," she told the judge. "It was not to undermine stability. I did not want anybody to take any risk and I did not want anybody to be arrested."

But Ms Goldwyn, from Barnes, London, looked saddened by the sentence, which is the maximum possible for the charge. An appeal has been lodged, but this will take at least two months to be heard.

Dr Goldwyn said: "I feel the Myanmar military regime is trying to put out a message to other people, saying, `Don't come and do this'. And it is just the cruellest message to punish Rachel in this way.

"The message people are actually getting is that this is a horrible country, so don't go on holiday there, don't invest in it, don't have anything to do with it."

She said her daughter would have known she was taking a risk, but would not have expected such an extreme sentence. Before leaving, Ms Goldwyn told her family she was going to Germany, knowing they would have tried to stop her if they had known her real destination. But she also left them a a note telling them not to worry, and that she was likely to be deported soon.

Yesterday Dr Goldwyn and her husband, Edward, a television producer, had the task of calling relatives to tell them the bad news. "Every time I ring them up they burst into tears, and I burst into tears again," said Dr Goldwyn. "I've had to stop calling now." Ms Goldwyn was the second Briton charged in Burma for pro-democracy activism in just over a week. At the beginning of the month, James Mawdsley, 26, from Lancashire, was jailed for 17 years after entering the country illegally carrying pro- democracy leaflets. It was the third time he had been arrested in the country. On Monday, the government's daily information sheet published a letter from a Burmese historian describing both as "criminal mercenaries" and saying Ms Goldwyn must face the consequences of her actions.

Mr Mawdsley's father, David, said yesterday he was "absolutely shocked" at Ms Goldwyn's sentence. "This is totally out of proportion. This is her first offence. All she did was sing a song. It is so cruel, but they are such a cruel lot, this junta."

Ms Goldwyn will serve her sentence at the notorious Insein Jail in Rangoon, the country's largest prison, where about 800 political prisoners are held. Amnesty International yesterday produced a distressing file of conditions in this and other jails in the country, showing at least 30 such prisoners have died in custody since the violent suppression of the pro- democracy movement in 1988.

"Political prisoners who break arbitrary and harsh prison rules are subjected to harsh punishments, including torture and severe ill-treatment," says one report. "Even the possession of almost any reading material is a punishable offence under prison rules.

"Political prisoners are liable to be sent to `police dog cells', where the animals are normally kept, or to other cells where the prisoners are subjected to beatings and placed in leg-restraints made of metal chains or of an iron rod between the feet."

Other punishments include being kept in the sun in temperatures of more than 100F, and being forced to crawl on the ground over sharp stones.

The arrests came during a crackdown against dissidents to prevent an uprising called for last week by exiles abroad. Diplomats believe the authorities arrested more than 100 local activists in Rangoon and others in the provinces. The uprising did not happen.