But the harsh treatment on what advocates say are trumped up charges has barely merited a peep from the Obama administration.
Nyi Nyi Aung, a Montgomery County, Md., resident and Myanmar democracy advocate who has traveled there often, appears to be politically inconvenient for both the United States and the Myanmar military dictatorship at a moment when the two countries have taken tentative steps towards engagement after years of stormy antagonism.
"It is shocking to me that an American citizen has been treated this way and higher U.S. officials are silent on that," said Wa Wa Kyaw, Nyi Nyi's fiancee and also a U.S. citizen and Maryland resident. "It will let the generals think, 'We can do whatever we want, even torture and inhumane treatment of a U.S. citizen,' because America wants to do the engagement policy."
In one apparent concession to American sensitivities, the government in October abruptly dropped charges of instigating unrest in concert with pro-democracy groups. Instead, it accused Nyi Nyi of purely criminal acts - allegedly possessing a forged Myanmar identification document and failing to declare U.S. currency totaling more than $2,000. His lawyers say he is innocent of both offenses; they note that he appears to have been seized by authorities before he even made it through customs, where he would have had to declare the currency.
Officials at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is regarded as one of the world's most oppressive nations, ruled by generals who have enriched themselves while much of the country remains desperately poor. The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, but the military leadership refused to accept it. Since then, she has been under house arrest for most of the time, as have hundreds of her supporters.
The 40-year-old Nyi Nyi was one of the leading organizers of demonstrations against the junta in 1988 and fled the country after a violent crackdown, eventually settling in the United States as a political refugee in 1993. He became a U.S. citizen in 2002 and earned a college degree in computer science, but he also remained deeply involved in Burmese democracy efforts.
Wa Wa said that her fiancee managed to often travel to Myanmar to visit his family and work with the underground because his U.S. passport is in his legal name, Kyaw Zaw Lwin. In his professional and personal lives in the United States, he has used Nyi Nyi Aung - an amalgam of a childhood nickname and his father's first name - and for years the Myanmar government never made the connection.
But last summer Nyi Nyi's profile was raised when he helped deliver a petition to a senior United Nations officials with 680,000 signatures calling for the release of all political prisoners in Myanmar.
Wa Wa, who has lived with Nyi Nyi since 2005, also has secretly traveled back to Myanmar even though she is a political refugee. "We have taken the risk because we want to organize and train the new generation for democracy and freedom," she said.
Nyi Nyi's mother and sister are serving prison sentences of five years and 65 years, respectively, for their involvement in 2007 anti-government demonstrations known as the "Saffron Revolution." Wa Wa said that he tried to enter the country again in part to see his ailing mother. But he appears to have been seized as soon as he landed at the airport in September.
Nyi Nyi's treatment in prison has attracted worldwide attention, with both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issuing statements on his case. Fifty-three members of the House of Representatives, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., sent a letter last week to Senior Gen. Than Shwe calling for Nyi Nyi's immediate release and return to the United States.
On Nov. 6, Sen. Barbara Milkulski, D-Md., sent Wa Wa a letter saying she had asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to condemn the detention in the "strongest terms possible." But Clinton - who over the summer called for the release of another American, John Yettaw - has been silent. Yettaw, who was tried for entering Aung San Suu Kyi's compound, eventually was freed through the intervention of Sen. James Webb, D-Va., when he traveled to Myanmar and met with senior leaders in August.
Sources also said that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell did not raise the case when he met with senior Myanmar officials in a rare high-level visit to Myanmar last month, though it has been raised at lower levels. Jared Genser, a Washington lawyer who is assisting Wa Wa, said Westerners put on trial in Burma are usually treated well and then deported, but Nyi Nyi appears to be the first American of Myanmar descent on trial, which might account for the rough treatment.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the department is handling the case as it would for any American citizen. "Embassy representatives have monitored his court appearances and been able to talk with him in that setting," he said. "We continue to press the Burmese government for ongoing consular access as required by the Vienna Convention so that we can ensure that he is treated appropriately.