The wife of Australian economist Prof Sean Turnell – who has been sentenced to three years in jail by Myanmar’s military junta – says his sentence is “heartbreaking” for his family and has pleaded for his release.
In a statement published in Burmese and English, Ha Vu said her husband’s sentence – imposed after a secret trial in which Turnell was denied proper legal counsel – had devastated his family.
“It’s heartbreaking for me, our daughter, Sean’s 85-year-old father, and the rest of our family,” she said.
“Sean has been one of Myanmar’s greatest supporters for over 20 years and has worked tirelessly to strengthen Myanmar’s economy.”
Ha Vu said her husband had already been held in a Myanmar prison for almost two-thirds of his sentence.
“Please consider the contributions that he has made to Myanmar, and deport him now,” she said.
Imprisoned since the junta’s illegal coup in February last year, Turnell had served as an adviser to the democratically elected civilian government led by ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who also received another three-year jail sentence this week.
An economist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Turnell was first detained on 6 February last year, less than a week after the military ousted Myanmar’s elected government, and plunged the country into chaos.
Turnell was later charged with violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, and over the past year has appeared alongside co-defendants including Aung San Suu Kyi and three of her former cabinet members.
The military had accused Turnell of possessing confidential documents when he was detained last year, according to the Irrawaddy news site. Turnell reportedly denied the charge, arguing the documents were not confidential, but economic recommendations he had provided to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in his capacity as an adviser.
He pleaded not guilty in court.
But there is limited information available about court proceedings involving political prisoners in Myanmar, where more than 15,600 people have been arrested since last year’s coup. Hearings are not accessible to journalists and lawyers are gagged from speaking with the media.
Turnell’s trial was held in a closed military court in the capital Naypyidaw, with Australian diplomats and journalists banned from attending.
Speaking in Adelaide on Friday, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said her government “completely” rejected the charges laid against Turnell.
Wong said the government knew where Turnell was being detained and sought access to the court for his sentencing, but that bid was “disappointingly and regrettably” denied by Myanmar’s authorities.
“We reject completely the charges against him and Australia will continue to advocate for all channels, public and private, for his return to Australia,” Wong said.
“We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for him until he is returned to his family in Australia.”
Wong said she would not discuss the “private details” of the case.
Turnell has worked on economic and banking issues in Myanmar since the early 2000s, focusing on promoting reform and growth. He has served as special economic consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi and as a senior economic adviser to the minister of planning, finance and industry. He previously worked for the Reserve Bank of Australia.
Last month, as the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, met the junta chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, to call for a de-escalation in violence in the country, she conveyed a request from the Australian government appealing for Turnell’s release.
Junta-controlled media later published what it claimed was an account of their meeting, in which Min Aung Hlaing said: “With regard to the case of Mr Sean Turnell, should the Australian government take positive steps, we will not need to take stern actions. In the Mr Sean Turnell’s case, the evidence shows that severe penalties could be imposed.”