Myanmar junta sentences Suu Kyi and her Australian economic advisor to three years in prison

A military court sentenced both State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her Australian economic advisor Sean Turnell to three years in prison under the Official Secrets Act on Thursday in Naypyitaw.

Judge Win Tin of Pyinmana District Court (formerly Dekkhina District Court) handed down the sentences at a hearing inside the Naypyitaw Detention Centre more than 18 months after their arrests. 

The Australian national and economist was also convicted of violating Section 13(1) of Myanmar’s Immigration Act, which deals with illegal overstay or entry to the country. For this, he was given a three-year prison term to be served concurrently with the sentence for breaching the Official Secrets Act. 

“It’s terrible news but hopefully it also opens up the possibility of the next step… for his return home,” former Australian ambassador to Myanmar Nicholas Coppel told Myanmar Now on Thursday. “With the trial out of the way, the military regime will now be wondering what next to do with Sean [Turnell]. In previous cases, foreigners have been convicted and then pardoned or deported fairly quickly. I think that’s the best we can now hope for in the case of Sean.”

Turnell’s wife, Ha Vu, described the verdict as “heartbreaking” in a Facebook post on Thursday afternoon, noting that her husband had already been incarcerated for a term amounting to nearly two-thirds of his sentence.

She asked that the military “consider the contributions that he has made to Myanmar” and allow  him to return to his home country. 

Turnell was arrested by the military on February 6, 2021, just five days after the military coup in which the elected National League for Democracy government led by Suu Kyi was ousted. 

Charges were then brought against Turnell, Suu Kyi and three of her deposed cabinet members for allegedly violating Section 3(1)(c) of the nearly 100-year-old Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. The statute criminalises the possession, collection, recording, publishing or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.”

The junta’s Supreme Court took over the cases in late May last year, ruling in the following September that the Dekkhina District Court would preside over the hearings. 

The convicted cabinet members include finance minister Kyaw Win, his successor Soe Win, and deputy minister Set Aung, who were handed the same prison terms as Suu Kyi and Turnell on Thursday. It is still unclear whether they will be moved from the Naypyitaw Detention Centre to Yamethin Prison, a facility located around 55 miles north of Naypyitaw in Mandalay Region, and typically where those sentenced in the military capital are sent.  

Suu Kyi, who turned 77 in June, had previously been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for 11 other convictions, bringing her total term to 23 years after Thursday’s ruling. She has seven more pending charges that were filed by the military after her arrest. 

Suu Kyi and Turnell appeared to be in good health when they attended the Thursday court hearing inside the detention centre, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. 

During an August 17 meeting with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyitaw, UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer appealed for Turnell’s release in a move to foster constructive relations between Australia and Myanmar. Min Aung Hlaing responded by saying that developments in Turnell’s case would be dependent upon Australia’s own engagement with his regime. 

“… should the Australian Government take positive steps, we will not need to take stern actions. In Mr Sean Turnell’s case, the evidence shows that severe penalties could be imposed,” Min Aung Hlaing told the special envoy, according to the junta’s transcript of their discussion.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Thursday afternoon to include statements from Nicholas Coppel and Ha Vu on Sean Turnell’s sentencing, and details concerning his conviction of violating the Immigration Act. 

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