Australian scholar Sean Turnell marks 10 months in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi’s economic adviser, Sean Turnell, remains in detention in Myanmar after being arrested on February 6 immediately following the military coup.

It comes to 10 months in jail for the Australian scholar who has spent much of his life trying to help the democratic process in Myanmar for the past two decades.

Turnell, Aung San Suu Kyi and three of his cabinet members were accused of breaking the law on official secrets at the end of March.

The Australian government and Turnell’s wife Ha Vu have called for his release. But little news of the case or his well-being has been released.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said shortly after Turnell’s arrest that he “is a highly esteemed adviser and member of the academic community in Australia … We called the Myanmar Ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to bring our concerns to him about this, and we will continue to do so and push for the release of Professor Turnell. ”

Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor Professor S. Bruce Dowton also expressed deep concern over Turnell’s detention and said the University had “for a long time supported his work and commitment to advice on the economics of the emergence of nascent democracy in Burma. “

On February 22, Turnell’s wife, an Australian-Vietnamese scholar, wrote a letter to the wife of Burmese junta leader Min Aung Hlaing calling “wife to wife” for her husband’s release.

“I am writing this personal note to you, Daw Kyu Kyu Hla, from one wife to another. I beg you to speak to your husband to let my husband go home to my family in Australia.

On March 23, possible charges against Turnell were first detailed. At a press conference, a spokesman for the military junta, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, claimed that Turnell was under investigation and faced two possible charges in connection with the accusation that he tried to flee the country with secret financial information following the February 1 military attack. to resume. The two offenses, under the National Immigration Law and the Law on Official Secrets, are punishable by five and seven years’ imprisonment, respectively.

At first, no information was available as to where Turnell was being held. At the end of April, it was reported that he was being held in Insein Prison in Yangon, where other political activists were being held.

In late May, reports suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi and several of his advisers, including Turnell, were charged under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, which prohibits the possession or sharing of “useful state information.” to an enemy ”.

In early June, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in a court in Naypyidaw. It was announced that she would face a total of five counts for certain specific offenses, plus a sixth count under the Official Secrets Act. The charge under the Official Secrets Act had been filed separately in the Yangon Eastern District Court. At the same time, it was reported that Turnell along with several former planning and finance ministers were also accused of breaking the Official Secrets Act.

On June 16, the Australian government reiterated its calls for Turnell’s release when Vice-Admiral David Johnston, Deputy Chief of the Australian Defense Force, spoke by telephone with the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army , Deputy General Soe Win.

Around this time, it was learned that Turnell had been transferred from Insein Prison in Yangon to Naypyitaw. We don’t know where he is being held.

Commenting on the situation, former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar Nicholas Coppel said: “For Sean Turnell and other political detainees, the chances of a fair trial are close to zero. The big fish is Aung San Suu Kyi and what they will want to show is that she has betrayed secrets to a stranger. They’ll need Sean for that.

In July, Turnell’s wife Ha Vu again requested her husband’s release, expressing concerns about COVID-19 and noting that her husband was suffering from cold and flu symptoms.

In September, it was confirmed that the location of Turnell’s trial had been moved from Yangon to Naypyitaw.

In mid-September, one of the lawyers working with Aung San Suu Kyi, Kyi Win, said the Myanmar Supreme Court had accepted the ruling.

A week later, it was reported that on September 23, Turnell appeared in Dekkhinathiri District Court in Naypyitaw with three ousted Union ministers, namely U Kyaw Win, former Minister of Planning, U Soe Win, former Minister of Finance, and U Set Aung, former Deputy Minister of Planning and Finance. They all appeared in court with full COVID-19 personal protective clothing.

Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in the same online video session. It was reported that Turnell had been charged with two cases under the Immigration Act. His lawyers filed their power of attorney for the second count during the hearing. The lawyer representing Aung San Duu Kyi, U Khin Maung Zaw, reportedly said that the lawyers representing the accused asked the court to allow a face-to-face meeting with their clients and also requested an interpreter for the translation. The lawyers requested the in-person meeting because the court appearance was the first time they had seen their clients in person.

One issue reportedly arose during the hearing on September 23, namely that Australian Embassy officials were not allowed to attend the hearing. A representative of the Australian Embassy traveled to Naypyitaw from Yangon but was denied access to the court.

At the time, an Australian government spokesperson in Canberra said: “We have expressed our grave concerns to the Myanmar Ambassador in Canberra and to senior officials in Naypyidaw. The Australian government has made it clear to Myanmar authorities our expectation that we receive timely advice on Professor Turnell’s case, including the court hearings. We have requested access to all future hearings. “

Hearings on the Turnell Track began weekly in September at the Dekkhina District Court in Naypyitaw, chaired by Judge Ye Lwin.

The first hearings were brief and lasted about 30 minutes. In early October, it was reported that a court in Naypyitaw had ruled that it would not allow a translator to attend court hearings. Turnell’s attorney, Ye Lin Aung, said the ruling banning a translator came in a preliminary hearing at a special court in Nayptitaw. Ye Lin Aung said the prosecution, citing security reasons, requested that no translators be allowed and the judge agreed.

“It’s difficult for us without a translator for him in court,” attorney Ye Lin Aung said. “I will discuss this with officials at the Australian Embassy.” He added that Turnell appeared to be in good health and asked for snacks and other items to be sent to him. State media reports say Turnell was injected with COVID-19 in July while in custody.

In mid-October, attorney Ye Lin Aung noted that he had not yet had the opportunity to meet with Turnell for a private discussion and submitted a request to the judge to allow him to meet with Turnell on his own.

At the same time, the judge said he was considering making a government-approved interpreter available during the hearings.

Ten months after the arrest, little is known about the depth of the charges against Turnell, and it is unclear what will be revealed due to the claims of secrecy highlighted by the court.

Burmese observers believe Turnell could be a pawn in the junta’s efforts to imprison and oust Aung San Suu Kyi from political life. The charges against Turnell may be part of their efforts to convict Aung San Suu Kyi under the Official Secrets Act and paint a picture in which authorities can invoke “foreign interference” in his handling of government affairs during his time. mandate, despite the fact that foreign advisers like Turnell are living up to the expectations of governments in many developing countries.

Sources: Mizzima, various media including AFP

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