Detained Australian economist appears in Myanmar court

BANGKOK (AP) — An Australian economist who was arrested when Myanmar’s military seized power in February made an appearance Thursday in a court in the capital Naypyitaw, where he will be tried for violation of the official secrets law, his lawyer said.

Sean Turnell had been serving as an advisor to the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was also arrested when her elected government was ousted by the army. Suu Kyi and three of her former Cabinet ministers have also been charged under the law.

Violating the official secrets law carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. The colonial-era statute criminalizes the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.”

The exact details of Turnell’s alleged offense and those of the others charged have not been made public, though Myanmar state television, citing government statements, has said the Australian academic had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee the country.

Ye Lin Aung, one of Turnell’s lawyers, said he is also being prosecuted under the immigration law and that he is being held at a prison in Naypyitaw.

All the defendants except for Suu Kyi were present Thursday in the Dekkhina District Court in Naypyitaw. Suu Kyi appeared on a video link. They had been charged in Yangon in March, but the case was moved last week to the capital.

Turnell and the others appeared haggard, said Khin Maung Zaw, one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers. Turnell’s lawyer Ye Lin Aung said he appeared to be in good health as far as he could tell, and that the defendants were all masked and not allowed to consult directly with their lawyers.

The lawyers applied to the court for permission to meet with their clients, and were told to submit applications, said Khin Maung Zaw. The court scheduled hearings in the case to be held every Thursday.

Suu Kyi is currently being tried in Naypyitaw on five other charges. The cases against her, lodged at the behest of the military-installed government, are widely seen as an effort to discredit Suu Kyi and prevent her from returning to politics.

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