Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong has rejected the ruling of a Myanmar court allowing the continuation of a trial against Australian economist Sean Turnell on charges of violating the country’s official secrets law.
Most important points:
- Court ruling applies to Sean Turnell, Aung San Suu Kyi and three other defendants
- Mr Turnell was arrested when Ms Suu Kyi’s elected government was overthrown by the military in February 2021
- Peaceful nationwide protests sparked by military takeover, but security forces destroyed it with deadly force
The court ruled that prosecutors had provided sufficient evidence against Mr Turnell, ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and three other defendants to continue the trial.
Senator Wong made a statement Friday night calling for the immediate release of Mr Turnell.
“We will continue to advocate for Professor Turnell’s best interests and well-being and will not stop until he is safely back with his family,” the statement said.
Mr Turnell was an adviser to Ms Suu Kyi, who was arrested when her elected government was overthrown by the military on February 1, 2021.
The takeover by the military sparked peaceful nationwide protests that cracked down security forces with deadly force, sparking armed resistance that some UN experts now characterize as civil war.
Turnell was arrested in Yangon, the largest city, a few days after the military took power.
He is on trial in the capital Naypyidaw, while Ms Suu Kyi and three former cabinet members are charged in the same case.
Violating the country’s official secrets law carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The colonial statute criminalizes the possession, collection, capture, publication, or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.”
Exact details of Turnell’s and the others’ alleged violations have not been made public, although Myanmar state television has said, citing government statements, that the Australian academic had access to “secret state financial information” and had attempted to flee the country. .
Mr Turnell is also being prosecuted under the country’s immigration law, which carries a prison sentence of six months to five years.
Prosecutions under the Immigration Act are common for foreigners detained for other offences.
Trial enters second phase
A legal officer familiar with Mr Turnell’s case said he and his co-defendants were formally charged on Thursday, allowing their trial to continue.
He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release any information.
Under Myanmar law, a judge can order the termination of a trial after the prosecution has presented his case, if it is found to be unfounded.
If the judge finds the prosecution’s case credible, the trial moves on to a second phase, in which the defense presents its case and a verdict is handed down.
In the coming weeks, the defense will present its arguments, including a re-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses, to the court.
The legal officer said Mr Turnell, who is being held in a prison in Naypyidaw, appeared to be in good health.
Suu Kyi faces several charges, including corruption and electoral fraud.
The cases against her, which have been brought on behalf of the military-installed government, are widely seen as an attempt to discredit her in order to prevent her from returning to politics.