Myanmar puts activist on trial

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Activists from Amnesty International (Hong Kong) hold a placard calling for releasing Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in a Hong Kong down town park Monday, May 18, 2009. Pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi is to go on trial Monday for allegedly harboring an American man who swam to her lakeside home. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

YANGON, Myanmar -- Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put on trial behind closed doors Monday with police surrounding the prison where the proceedings were held to deter supporters who claim she is being prosecuted to keep her out of politics.

Despite the closed nature of the trial, a U.S. consular official was allowed in because a resident of Falcon, Mo., John W. Yettaw, is also a defendant. He prompted the charges by swimming to her property and sneaking into her home.

Suu Kyi, her two companions under house arrest, and Yetta are being tried together for violating the conditions of her restriction order, which bans visitors without permission. The offense is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

Last week's arrest of the Nobel Peace laureate, who has been in detention without trial for more than 13 or the past 19 years, reignited criticism of Myanmar's military junta and led to renewed calls for her release.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris, one of several cities where activists rallied, called Suu Kyi's trial a "scandalous provocation." Demonstrations were held Monday in about 20 cities, including London, Rome, Boston and San Francisco.

Until now, 63-year-old Suu Kyi was detained under the State Protection Act, which allows the military regime to hold people without a trial if they are considered a threat, said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. The new charges of violating the terms of her house arrest could lead to imprisonment under much harsher conditions.

Suu Kyi had been scheduled to be freed May 27 after six consecutive years of house arrest, but it was expected the military government would try to find reason to hold her, as has happened in the past.

The new charges are widely seen as a pretext for the government to keep Suu Kyi out of elections it scheduled for next spring as the culmination of its "roadmap to democracy," which has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize continued military control. Many other prominent dissidents received long jail terms last year, which could hurt any opposition effort to contest the polls.

The ambassadors of Britain, France, Germany and Italy as well as an Australian diplomat were barred from entering the prison compound for the trial, but U.S. consular chief Colin Furst was allowed in.

Yettaw is also being tried separately for violations of immigration law and a statute covering swimming in the city's Inya Lake.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and one of four lawyers representing her at the trial, said the court, "for security reasons," rejected their request to open her trial to the public and media. The trial is expected to last about three months.

Suu Kyi wore a turquoise-colored jacket to court with a matching longyi -- a sarong -- and was "very fresh and alert," he said, adding that she asked the lawyers to tell friends that her health is fine. She had recently been ill, suffering from dehydration and low blood pressure.

Her lawyers have so far not contested the government's version of events, but insist she is not guilty.

"We are certain that we will win the case if it goes according to law because she didn't break the law," said Nyan Win, speaking at the league's headquarters. Courts in Myanmar have rarely ruled in favor of Suu Kyi or any pro-democracy activists, who often receive the harshest sentences possible.

In the trial's opening day, police Lt. Col. Zaw Min Aung laid out the prosecution's basic case -- that Suu Kyi, two female party members who are her companions, and Yettaw violated the terms of her restriction order, which bans any visitors without official permission, said Nyan Win. The police official was the first of 22 scheduled prosecution witnesses.

Yettaw, 53, of Falcon, Missouri, swam under cover of darkness early this month to sneak into Suu Kyi's compound, where he was allowed to stay for two days after pleading that he was too ill and tired to leave. He allegedly made a similar visit last year.

Suu Kyi's lawyers have said he was not invited to her residence, and that she told him to leave.

Yettaw's family have described him as an as well-intentioned admirer of Suu Kyi, unaware of the problems his actions could trigger. Her supporters have expressed anger at him for getting her into trouble.

"He has great respect for her and merely wanted to interview her," his wife Betty Yettaw said in an e-mail Monday to The Associated Press. "He has no agenda. He has no political intent."

Security forces blocked all roads leading to the prison and police were stationed at key intersections in the city. Several hundred riot police, many armed with guns, batons and shields, guarded the perimeter of Insein, where the regime has for years incarcerated political prisoners.

More than 100 Suu Kyi supporters were able to get through an outer perimeter of barricades around the prison, but not an inner one that was closely guarded by armed police and government supporters.

Earlier, three groups which had helped organize 2007's mass pro-democracy demonstrations issued a statement calling for "all political forces for 'Free Aung San Suu Kyi' to mobilize peaceful protests throughout Burma, the country's name before the military takeover.

Parliamentary rule was overthrown by a coup in 1962, and the army has been in control since then. Suu Kyi's party won elections in 1990 but the junta refused to recognize the results.

European foreign ministers, meeting Monday in Brussels, said China, India and other Asian countries should press Myanmar's leaders to release Suu Kyi and agreed to pursue fresh contacts with Myanmar's neighbors at talks in Vietnam next week.

"It is right the EU put on the table all the potential ways of exercising influence including engagement and including sanctions, both of which will be undertaken with real vigor," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

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