The regime maintains the outward appearance of following laws, replete with formal charges, witnesses and legal representation, when in fact many verdicts are decided by a few powerful people, said David Mathieson, Myanmar researcher with the activist group Human Rights Watch.
Myanmar's ambassador to the United Nations, Thant Kyaw, denied last month that politics played a part in the convictions. "There are no political prisoners in Myanmar, and no individual has been incarcerated simply for his or her political beliefs," he told a U.N. committee.
Families disagree, saying that the food in Myanmar's 44 prisons and at least 50 labor camps is often bad because corrupt officials pocket the budget, with rice gruel at breakfast, rice and watery bean soup at lunch and a thin vegetable soup at dinner.
And prisoners deemed "troublemakers" face years in solitary confinement, they say, and torture sessions that include kneeling for hours, severe beatings for moving, being suspended by the wrists and water torture.
Conditions varied depending on the prison. A former inmate of Insein Prison said he spent five years in an 8-by-12-foot room that housed up to seven people. Prisoners were given 15 minutes a day to clean out their waste and wash themselves, using a plate, not a bowl.
"It's very difficult to bathe with a plate," he said.
Family members say their relatives eventually become inured.
During Htay Kywe's first prison sentence, his father died, leaving him quite depressed. During his second sentence, during which his mother died, he took personal setbacks in stride, relatives said.
"They never tell us about torture, they don't want us to worry," said a relative of husband-and-wife student protesters Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. "Frankly, we don't want to know either. It would only make things harder."
Many relatives said that though they're happy for Suu Kyi, they hope political change will ease their family's plight.
"I hope Ko Ko Gyi gets pardoned," said a relative. "His two nieces are growing up without knowing him. We all really miss him."