Australia urges Myanmar to free detained economist

Australian economics professor Sean Turnell was working as an adviser to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested in February 2021. PHOTO: @SEANTURNELL/TWITTER

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's foreign minister called on Sunday (Feb 6) for the "immediate release" of economics professor Sean Turnell, who has been detained by Myanmar's junta for the past year.

Professor Turnell was working as an adviser to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested last February, just days after a military coup.

The Australian economist has been charged with violating Myanmar's official secrets law and faces a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison if found guilty.

"Professor Turnell's detention is unjust, and we reject the allegations against him," Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement. "We once again call for Professor Turnell's immediate release."

The coup in Myanmar has triggered mass protests and a bloody military crackdown, with more than 1,500 civilians killed and nearly 12,000 arrested as at Feb 4, according to a local monitoring group.

Human rights groups have raised concerns about Prof Turnell's prosecution, particularly after the Australian Embassy was denied access to his court hearing in September.

"Consistent with basic standards of justice and transparency, we expect that Professor Turnell should have unimpeded access to his lawyers, and that Australian officials be able to observe his court proceedings," Mr Payne said.

Prof Turnell was in the middle of a phone interview with the BBC when he was detained after the coup.

"I've just been detained at the moment, and perhaps charged with something. I don't know what that would be; could be anything at all, of course," Prof Turnell told the broadcaster at the time.

"Everyone's been very polite and all that, but obviously I'm not free to move or anything like that."

Last month, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the Refugee Council of Australia, called on the Australian government to impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar's military leaders.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.