Aung San Suu Kyi’s chief lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, says that the Australian government should be doing more to secure the release of Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Myanmar’s democratic leader.
Speaking to the Guardian from Naypyidaw, Khin Maung Zaw said that he had not spoken to Turnell since his arrest nearly three months ago. Asked whether the Australian government should be doing more to help the Macquarie University economics professor, who was charged in a Yangon court with breaching official secrets laws, Khin Maung Zaw said: “It should. It’s much better if the Australian government took more interest in Sean’s case.”
On 23 June the supreme court will decide whether Turnell’s case should be heard in the Naypyidaw district court. If it is – which Khin Maung Zaw thinks is likely – he will be Turnell’s lawyer.
Earlier this week, V Adm David Johnston, the vice chief of the Australian defence force, spoke with Soe Win, a vice senior general and deputy commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. Johnston “expressed Australia’s deep concern at the situation in Myanmar and reiterated Australia’s call for the immediate release of Professor Sean Turnell” according to a statement from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) seen by the ABC.
“Vice Admiral Johnston underlined the very high priority that Australia attaches to Professor Turnell’s release, and made a range of requests regarding his circumstances,” the statement continued.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, told local media on Sunday that consular officials “have been consistently seeking [Turnell’s] release since he was detained some months ago now”, and that the officials had been communicating with Turnell and his family.
“We do believe that Prof Turnell is arbitrarily detained,” said Payne.
If the case is transferred to Naypyidaw, judges will then decide its “level of complexity”, said Khin Maung Zaw, which will determine the length of time for a trial – from 180 days to two years or more. He believes the case will be deemed “somewhat complex”, which will mean that the trial could take a year.
Khin Maung has spoken Aung San Suu Kyi, who he says doing well physically and “superbly” mentally. She is “not being treated roughly or rough-handled”.
The UN’s top human rights official warned last week that Myanmar has descended into a “human rights catastrophe”, in the run-up to the scheduled start of the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces criminal charges that could lead to decades in prison.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Turnell were among several people charged with breaking Myanmar’s colonial-era official secrets law, in an escalation of the campaign against the deposed civilian leader by the junta that overthrew her government in February.
In the months since the coup, more than 800 civilians have been killed, according to a local monitoring group, as the military uses lethal force to crack down on dissent.
“I want to urge the Australian government and all the international legal community to look after Sean Turnell by constantly watching the case, step by step,” said Khin Maung Zaw. “International exposure is needed in these cases, all these cases.”
Additional reporting by Paul Karp