BANGKOK (AP) — A military-run court in Myanmar on Thursday recognized former leader Aung San Suu Kyi in another criminal case and sentenced him Australian economist Sean Turnell to three years in prison for violating Myanmar’s official secrets law, a judicial official said.
Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being convicted along with Turnell under the Secrets Act, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information about the ‘affair.
Three members of his cabinet were also found guilty, each receiving three years in prison.
Turnell was also found guilty of violating immigration law, for which he received a three-year sentence to be served concurrently with the sentence for violation of the Secrets Act. The 20 months he has already spent in custody will be deducted from his sentence, leaving him less than a year and a half to serve.
Turnell, 58, an associate professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, had been an adviser to Suu Kyi, who was detained in the capital Naypyitaw when her elected government was overthrown by the military on February 1, 2021.
His family and friends have expressed hope that he will soon be released and deported, as has happened with other foreigners in Myanmar convicted of political offences, albeit less serious ones.
“It is heartbreaking for me, our daughter, Sean’s 85-year-old father, and the rest of our family to learn that my husband, Professor Sean Turnell, has been found guilty and sentenced to 3 years of imprisonment,” his wife Ha Vu, also an economist, posted on her Facebook page. “Sean has been one of Myanmar’s biggest supporters for over 20 years and has worked tirelessly to strengthen Myanmar’s economy.”
“My husband has already been in a Myanmar prison for almost 2/3 of his sentence,” she added. “Please consider the contributions he has made to Myanmar and deport him now!”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office rejected the court’s decision and called for Turnell’s immediate release. Decrying that he had been “unjustly detained”, his office said Australian diplomats had been denied access to the court hearing for the verdict.
“We will continue to take every opportunity to strongly defend Professor Turnell until he is returned to his family in Australia,” he said in a statement.
Longtime friend Tim Harcourt said Turnell was “a great economist, a nice guy, and a great human being. His main cause in life is to reduce poverty in the world and he has developed particular expertise in Myanmar.
“Let’s hope that common sense and justice can prevail and that Sean can soon return to his wife and family in Australia,” said Harcourt, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney.
Turnell was arrested five days after security forces took over a hotel in Yangon, the country’s largest city. He had returned to Myanmar from Australia less than a month previously to take up a new position as a special consultant to Suu Kyi. As director of the Myanmar Development Institute, he had already been living in Naypyitaw for several years.
The day after the military takeover, he tweeted: “Safe for now but heartbroken at what this all means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest and kindest people I know. They deserve so much better. »
The five co-defendants were charged based on documents seized from Turnell. Exact details of their offense have not been made public, although state television said last year that Turnell had gained access to ‘secret state financial information’ and attempted to flee the country. .
Turnell and Suu Kyi denied the allegations when they testified for their defense at the trial in August.
Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Law criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publication or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an enemy”. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
The trial, like others involving Suu Kyi, took place in a purpose-built prison courtroom and was closed to the media and public. Defense attorneys were prevented by a gag order from revealing details of the proceedings.
The multiple criminal charges against 77-year-old Suu Kyi are widely seen as an attempt to discredit her and prevent her return to politics.
She had previously been sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition, electoral fraud and five corruption charges.
Suu Kyi is still on trial on seven counts under the country’s anti-corruption law, with each count carrying a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
Defense lawyers are expected to file an appeal in the secrets case in the coming days for Turnell, Suu Kyi and three former ministers: Soe Win and Kyaw Win, both former planning and finance ministers, and Set Aung, a former vice -minister of the same ministry, said the legal official.
Australia has repeatedly called for Turnell’s release. Last year it suspended defense cooperation with Myanmar and began redirecting humanitarian aid due to the military coup and continued detention of Turnell.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, during his visit to Myanmar in January this year, called for Turnell’s release during a meeting with the head of the ruling military council. General-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing replied that he would “consider it positively”.
UN special envoy for Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said she conveyed a specific request from Australia for Turnell’s release when she met Min Aung Hlaing in August. The Myanmar government said the general responded that if the Australian government takes positive action, “we won’t need to take harsh action.”
According to the Political Prisoners Assistance Association, a rights watchdog, 15,683 people have been detained for political reasons in Myanmar since the army took over, of whom 12,540 remain in detention. At least 2,324 civilians were killed by security forces during the same period, according to the group, although the number is believed to be much higher.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the takeover, leading to nationwide protests that the military government has suppressed with deadly force, sparking armed resistance that some UN experts are now calling a civil war .
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia contributed to this report.