American journalist Danny Fenster was let out of jail and deported last November, three days after being found guilty of encouraging dissent against the military and breaching immigration rules, for which he was sentenced to 11 years hard labour.
His freedom was secured in the form of a pardon negotiated by Bill Richardson, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico, who met with junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
But Turnell has remained in prison awaiting his trial as 77-year-old Suu Kyi has been sentenced to a combined 20 years in jail and hard labour on other charges she has steadfastly denied, including electoral fraud, corruption and importing walkie-talkies illegally.
He has reportedly argued in court that documents he was found with when he was arrested after the coup were not confidential but contained recommendations to the then National League for Democracy government headed by Suu Kyi.
Lobbying for his release, the Australian government has had Cambodia, this year’s chair of regional bloc ASEAN, ask for him to be set free on its behalf. Most recently, Noeleen Heyzer, the UN special envoy to Myanmar, said she had “conveyed a specific request from the Australian government” to release Turnell when she met with Min Aung Hlaing last month.
The appeals have been ignored by the junta chief, who has just returned from visiting Vladimir Putin in Russia, which is a major arms supplier to the Myanmar security forces.
According to Myanmar news site The Irrawaddy Min, Aung Hlaing told Heyzer that “if the Australian government had acted more positively, Turnell’s case would not have become so serious”.
The Myanmar military was furious at Australia for effectively downgrading diplomatic ties this year by electing not to replace its outgoing ambassador, a move made in an effort to avoid legitimising the regime.
But with Turnell’s predicament in mind the Australian government has refrained from imposing sanctions relating to Myanmar, as the US, European Union, Britain and Canada have done, a decision for which it has worn criticism from human rights and civil society groups.
The Australian has been the highest profile foreigner detained since Myanmar descended into chaos following the coup but a junta court last week sentenced former British ambassador Vicky Bowman and her husband to a year in jail for living at a different address to the one they were registered at.
Since her government posting, Bowman has championed the commercial opportunities in the country as the director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.
“You’ve got Vicky Bowman who has been a greater promoter of business and bilateral ties and then you’ve got Sean, who’s got the economic brains to put them back on their feet, and they’re treating them like this,” Professor Harcourt said.
“It’s not only wrong in terms of justice and human rights but it seems rather self-defeating for them.”
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