Jailed Australian economist testifies in secretive Myanmar trial

Sean Turnell, who was an adviser to elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pleaded not guilty as hearing got underway.

Sean Turnell, wearing a face mask and white shirt, pictured by the military junta sitting at a table being given a COVID-19 vaccination
Sean Turnell testified as his closed-door trial in Naypyidaw which began on Thursday [File: Myanmar News Agency via AFP]

An Australian academic and economic adviser to Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained after the military seized power last year, has testified in a military court for the first time.

Sean Turnell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney, is being tried with Aung San Suu Kyi on charges of breaking the country’s official secrets act.

Turnell was arrested five days after the coup on February 1 and is currently being held in prison in Naypyidaw, the capital, as is Aung San Suu Kyi. Three of her former Cabinet members are on trial with them at a closed-door court set up in the prison.

A legal official familiar with Thursday’s proceedings told the Associated Press news agency that Turnell denied the allegations against him and pleaded not guilty. Further details were not available because his lawyers have been barred from talking about the case. All of the trials involving Aung San Suu Kyi have been held under similar restrictions.

The legal official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to release information, said Turnell and his co-defendants appeared to be in good health.

The exact details of the alleged offence in the case have also not been made public, although Myanmar state television, citing government statements, said last year that Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee the country.

Turnell is also being prosecuted under Myanmar’s immigration law, which carries a punishment of between six months and five years in prison.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in June that Turnell’s release was a “priority” for the government, and indicated that new sanctions against Myanmar were under consideration.

“Let’s face it, it’s trumped-up charges by an authoritarian regime that wants to use Sean to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s what it’s all about,” Tim Harcourt, a friend and fellow economist, was quoted as saying by the Australian public broadcaster, ABC.

The judge adjourned Thursday’s proceedings until next week, when Aung San Suu Kyi is to testify. Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains hugely popular, is facing numerous charges that include corruption and election fraud. The 76-year-old has already been found guilty and jailed on corruption charges. The international community has dismissed the trials as farcical and demanded her immediate release.

Sean Turnell on the stage with other speakers at an EU-Myanmar summit in 2017 when he was adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi
Turnell, pictured right, was an economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi and was arrested five days after the military seized power [File: Hein Htet/EPA]

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which led to a mass civil disobedience movement and nationwide protests. Some 2,185 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown on those opposed to its rule, triggering armed resistance that some United Nations experts have characterised as civil war.

Japanese legislator visits

There was no mention of Turnell’s trial in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar whose front page on Friday carried a report on a meeting between coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and Japanese ruling party legislator Hiromichi Watanabe.

The visit, which Watanabe’s office confirmed took place from August 7-12, comes just days after Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota was arrested while covering a protest in Yangon.

State media made no mention of whether Kubota’s detention was discussed, saying Watanabe and Min Aung Hlaing talked about bilateral relations, including plans to “grow cherry plants” and the “spreading of false information regarding Myanmar’s political situation among foreign countries, and need for people in Japan to know the true situations”.

Tokyo has called for the release of 26-year-old Kubota, who entered Myanmar on a tourist visa and was arrested on July 30 in Yangon. He faces charges of breaking an immigration law and encouraging dissent against the ruling military.

Toru Kubota
Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota was detained by the military as he filmed an anti-coup protest in Yangon [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]

Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese freelance journalist, was freed in Myanmar last year after initially being arrested and charged with spreading false news by covering anti-coup protests.

The military said his release was in recognition of the two countries’ close ties.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies