Sean Turnell, Australian economist sentenced to three years over Myanmar’s secrets law

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“The Australian government has consistently rejected the charges against Professor Turnell during the more than 19 months he had been unjustly detained by the Myanmar military regime.”

Turnell pleaded not guilty and reportedly argued in court that documents he was discovered with when he was arrested were recommendations to Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy government, and not confidential in nature.

But the court ruled he had breached the country’s colonial-era official secrets act, issuing the same three-year sentence to co-defendant Suu Kyi.

“It’s an outrageous sentence,” said Turnell’s friend and fellow economist Tim Harcourt. “All he had was economic information that he needed to do his job. There were no secret documents there. He’s already done 18 months.

“He should be released, deported, sent back to Australia now. He’s nothing more than a technical economics adviser who wanted to lift Burmese people out of poverty.”

Turnell was arrested five days after the military takeover by security forces at a hotel in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, while waiting for a car to take him to the city’s international airport.

Harcourt said Turnell’s ordeal had been very difficult for his family.

“I spoke to his sister just before. There’s been a lot of anxiety. You expect the worst with Burma. But they’re confident there will be a reunification. Sean is a big fan of [Alexander] Hamilton, the [former United States] treasury secretary, so I hope the cast of the musical Hamilton put on a special performance for Sean when he gets out.”

Turnell’s treatment has been slammed by human rights groups.

“The politically motivated conviction of Australian Sean Turnell is a cruel injustice,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Elaine Pearson.

“He was convicted after a trial in closed court without proper access to legal counsel. It’s critical that the Australian government take all necessary steps to pressure Myanmar’s junta to immediately release Turnell and send him home.”

The Australian government has pressed repeatedly for the release of Turnell.

Cambodia, this year’s chair of regional bloc ASEAN, has requested him to be set free on Australia’s behalf and UN special envoy Noeleen Heyzer said last month she had “conveyed a specific request from the Australian government” when she travelled to Myanmar to meet with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s government said the general replied that, should the Australian government take positive steps, “we will not need to take stern actions”.

Australia downgraded diplomatic ties with Myanmar this year, choosing not to replace its departing ambassador, but with Turnell’s predicament in mind, the Morrison and Albanese governments have refrained from imposing sanctions against the military regime as the United States, Britain, the European Union and Canada have done.

“We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for Professor Turnell until he has returned to his family in Australia,” Wong said.

“We acknowledge the strong international support shown for him, including from our region.

Defence lawyers are expected to file appeals in the coming days for Turnell, Suu Kyi and three former ministers in her government who were also convicted on Thursday, a legal official told the Associated Press.

The court decision brought the total prison time handed to 77-year-old Suu Kyi to more than 20 years, having already been convicted of other charges brought by the junta including illegal importation of walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition, election fraud and corruption.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights monitoring organisation, 15,683 people have been detained on political charges in Myanmar since the army takeover, with 12,540 of those remaining in detention. At least 2324 civilians have been killed by security forces in the same period, the group says, though the number is thought to be far higher.



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