BANGKOK - Deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced on Thursday to three years in prison for breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.
This adds to the existing 20 years’ jail she is serving for a range of offences, including electoral fraud, corruption and violating Covid-19 pandemic restrictions – charges widely thought to be trumped up to end her political career.
On Thursday, Ms Suu Kyi’s former economic advisor Sean Turnell as well as three of her former Cabinet members – Kyaw Win, Soe Win and Set Aung – were also handed a three-year prison term each for breaking the same law.
Professor Turnell, an Australian economist, was sentenced to another three years’ jail for violating Myanmar’s immigration law, though the sentence was ordered to run concurrently with his first.
Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won the 2015 and 2020 elections, has been detained since the Feb 2021 military coup. She is currently in solitary confinement in a Naypyitaw prison.
Prof Turnell was detained shortly after the coup and accused of possessing confidential documents. He denied the allegation.
His wife pleaded for his release on Thursday, saying his jailing in Myanmar is “heartbreaking” for his whole family.
“It’s heartbreaking for me, our daughter, Sean’s 85-year-old father and the rest of our family,” Ms Ha Vu said in a statement.
“My husband has already been in a Myanmar prison for almost two-thirds of his sentence. Please consider the contributions that he has made to Myanmar, and deport him now.”
Like many other people prosecuted by the military junta, the academic from Australia’s Macquarie University was tried under secretive conditions, with his lawyers barred from speaking to the media.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong criticised the ruling against Prof Turnell, saying he was tried in a closed court with no consular access.
Canberra will “advocate strongly” for Prof Turnell until he is returned to his family, Ms Wong said.
“The Australian government rejects today’s court ruling... and calls for his immediate release,” she added.
Ms Elaine Pearson, Asia director at advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said: “The junta’s willingness to pile sentences on Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the Australian economist Sean Turnell and three of her ministers, show that Myanmar’s military has no qualms about their international pariah status.
“Concerned governments should take this as a clear signal that they need to take concerted action against the junta if they are going to turn the human rights situation around in the country.”
The junta deems the 2020 election fraudulent and plans to hold fresh polls in 2023.
However, it is grappling with resistance from new armed groups that have sprung up in response to the coup. The rival National Unity Government, composed of ousted parliamentarians and allied groups, claims that the junta now controls only half the country.
Over 12,000 people have been detained by the junta since the coup, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. At least 2,300 people have been killed.
Prof Turnell is among a handful of foreign nationals who have been detained and charged by the junta since the coup.
On Sept 2 this year, former British ambassador Vicky Bowman was sentenced to one year in prison for breaching immigration laws. She and her husband, Myanmar artist Htein Lin, were detained in August in Yangon, after they had returned from their home in Shan state. She was accused of failing to register a change of residential address.
American journalist Danny Fenster was arrested in May 2021, and sentenced in November to 11 years in prison for incitement and violating Myanmar’s laws on immigration and unlawful associations. Days after his conviction, he was released and deported.
Meanwhile, Japanese freelance journalist Yuki Kitazumi was arrested in April 2021 and accused of spreading fake news. He was freed in May that year, a decision that the junta-controlled media said was made “in consideration of cordial relations between Myanmar and Japan up to now and in view of future bilateral relations, and upon the request of the Japanese government special envoy on Myanmar’s national reconciliation”.