Outcry over jailing of Aung San Suu Kyi

• Arrest is pretext to extend detention, says Brown
• Mormon swam to home of opposition leader

The US and Europe led a chorus of international condemnation last night after Burma's military regime jailed and charged the pro-democracy opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, over a bizarre incident in which an American man swam across a lake to her property.

Foreign governments and human rights organisations accused the regime yesterday of planning to put Suu Kyi on trial next week on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest as a pretext for keeping the winner of the last free vote in Burma, 19 years ago, in detention ahead of elections next year.

Suu Kyi, 63, faces up to five years in prison if convicted after John Yettaw swam to the property next to Lake Inya in Rangoon where the 1991 Nobel peace prize winner has been confined for 13 of the last 19 years. The latest house detention order expires in a fortnight and the opposition leader's lawyers intended to go to court to demand her release in time to lead her party in the election

The prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he was deeply disturbed at the charges against Suu Kyi. "The Burmese regime is clearly intent on finding any pretext, no matter how tenuous, to extend her unlawful detention," he said.

"The real injustice, the real illegality, is that she is still detained in the first place. If the 2010 elections are to have any semblance of credibility, she and all political prisoners must be freed to participate. Only then will Burma be set on the road to real democracy, stability and prosperity."

The US said Suu Kyi's arrest and charging under the Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of the Subversive Elements law is troubling. The EU special envoy to Burma, Piero Fassino, said there was "no justification" for the detention. Australia demanded Suu Kyi's immediate and unconditional release.

But there were growing questions about the circumstances of the incident that led to her arrest as Suu Kyi's lawyer revealed that Yettaw also swam to her property last year to deliver a bible. Burmese exiles say that when Suu Kyi's doctor visited her shortly afterwards, she asked him to tell the authorities about the intrusion but nothing more came of it.

Suu Kyi's lawyer, Kyi Win, described Yettaw as a "nutty fellow" and said she begged him to leave when he again swam to her house earlier this month, and had considered reporting him to the authorities. "Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems," he said.

Yettaw, a military veteran and psychology student from Falcon, Missouri, faces up to five years in prison for illegally entering a restricted zone.

Suu Kyi's lawyers say she did not violate the conditions of her house arrest because Yettaw had arrived without invitation and was immediately asked to leave. They also disputed the government's claim that he was on the property for two nights. They said he stayed for one after Suu Kyi begged him to leave as soon as he arrived.

"He said he was so tired and wanted to rest, but she pleaded with him. Then he slept overnight on the ground floor," Kyi Win told the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The lawyers say Yettaw is a Mormon who prayed continually at Suu Kyi's house. The American told Burmese exiles in Thailand he was writing a "faith-based" book on heroism.

US embassy officials were finally given access to Yettaw a week after he was arrested, in the presence of several police and security officials.

"He would not go into any details about his stay in the house," said an embassy spokesman. "He seems to have a very strong religious reason for his actions."

Yettaw's stepson, Paul Nedrow, emailed the Associated Press to say that his stepfather did not mean to cause problems for the Burmese opposition leader. "I know that John is harmless and not politically motivated in any way. He did not want to cause Suu Kyi any trouble," he said.

Nedrow said his stepfather's judgment may have been affected by diabetes which "could cause him to become disoriented and be unable to make wise choices".

Suu Kyi is being held at Insein prison near Rangoon. Her doctor, Tin Myo Win, and her companion, Khin Khin Win, and Win's daughter, Win Ma Ma, who have lived with the Burmese opposition leader since she was placed under house arrest in 2003, were also arrested.


Chris McGreal in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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