BANGKOK: A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted former leader Aung San Suu Kyi in another criminal case on Thursday and sentenced Australian economist Sean Turnell to three years in prison for violating the Southeast Asian country’s official secrets law, a legal official said.
Suu Kyi received a three-year sentence after being tried and convicted with Turnell under that law, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information about the case.
Three members of her Cabinet were also found guilty, each receiving three-year sentences.
Turnell, an associate economics professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University, had served as an adviser to the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was detained in the capital Naypyitaw when her elected government was ousted by the army on Feb. 1, 2021.
He has been in detention for almost 20 months. He was arrested five days after the military takeover by security forces at a hotel in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, while waiting for a car to take him to the city’s international airport.
He had arrived back in Myanmar from Australia to take up a new position as a special consultant to Suu Kyi less than a month before he was detained. As director of the Myanmar Development Institute, he had already lived in Naypyitaw for several years.
The day after the military’s takeover, he posted a message on Twitter that he was safe “for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better.”
He was charged along with Suu Kyi and the three former Cabinet ministers on the basis of documents seized from him. The exact details of their offense have not been made public, although state television said last year that Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee Myanmar.
Turnell and Suu Kyi denied the allegations when they testified in their defense at the trial in August.
The professor was also charged with violating immigration law, but it was not immediately clear what sentence he received for that.
Myanmar’s colonial-era official secrets act criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is, “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
All sessions of the trial, held in a purpose-built courtroom in Naypyitaw’s main prison, were closed to the media and the public. The defense lawyers were barred by a gag order from revealing details of the proceedings.
The same restrictions have been applied to all of Suu Kyi’s trials.
The case that concluded on Thursday is one of several faced by Suu Kyi and is widely seen as an effort to discredit her and prevent her return to politics.
She had already been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment after being convicted of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition, election fraud and five corruption charges. The cases are widely seen as being concocted to keep the 77-year-old Suu Kyi from returning to active politics.
Suu Kyi is still being tried on seven counts under the country’s anti-corruption law, with each count punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
Defense lawyers are expected to file appeals in the secrets case in the coming days for Turnell, Suu Kyi and the three former ministers: Soe Win and Kyaw Win, both former ministers for planning and finance; and Set Aung, a former deputy minister in the same ministry, the legal official said.