Aung San Suu Kyi and Australian adviser handed three years’ jail after secret trial

Myanmar junta’s sentencing of ousted leader and economic adviser Sean Turnell described as ‘cruel injustice’

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Australian academic Sean Turnell, who served as her adviser, have been sentenced to three years in prison after a closed trial in Myanmar, according to reports.

Turnell, an economist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, was first detained on 6 February last year, a few days after the military ousted Myanmar’s elected government, plunging 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 the ousted leader and three of her former cabinet members.

A source, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters Turnell and the ousted leader had been given “three years each, no hard labour”. Both had pleaded not guilty.

The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, rejected the court ruling and called for Turnell’s immediate release.

“Prof Turnell was tried in a closed court – Australia’s chargé d’affaires and consular officials in Myanmar made every effort to attend the verdict but were denied access to the court,” Wong said. “We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for Prof Turnell until he has returned to his family in Australia. We acknowledge the strong international support shown for him, including from our region.”

There is very limited information 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 defence lawyers have been gagged from talking to media.

Aung San Suu Kyi had already been sentenced to 20 years in prison over separate cases, and is still facing trials.

The military had accused Turnell of possessing confidential documents when he was detained last year, according to the Irrawaddy news site. Turnell has reportedly denied the charge and said the documents were not confidential, but were economic recommendations he had given in his capacity as adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

The case against him has been widely condemned by rights groups.

Elaine Pearson, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the sentences handed down were a “cruel injustice”. “The junta’s willingness to pile sentences on Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the Australian economist Sean Turnell and three of her ministers, shows that Myanmar’s military has no qualms about their international pariah status.

“Concerned governments should take this as a clear signal that they need to take concerted action against the junta if they are going to turn the human rights situation around in the country,” she said. Turnell had been denied proper access to legal counsel, she added.

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. Before this, he worked at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Last month, as the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, met the junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, to call for a de-escalation in violence in the country, she also 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.”

At least 15,683 people have been arrested since the military took power on 1 February 2021, and 12,540 remain in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks arrests and killings.

Other foreign nationals being held include Britain’s former ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, and Toru Kubota, a Japanese film-maker.

Separately, Amnesty International launched a report on Thursday that argued Facebook’s algorithms “substantially contributed” to atrocities committed by the military against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority when Aung San Suu Kyi was in power.

“In the months and years leading up to the atrocities, Facebook’s algorithms were intensifying a storm of hatred against the Rohingya which contributed to real-world violence,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.

“While the Myanmar military was committing crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, Meta was profiting from the echo chamber of hatred created by its hate-spiralling algorithms.”

Amnesty’s reassessment of Facebook’s role in the genocide is based on the cache of documents released by the whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021, which “enable a renewed understanding of the manner in which [Facebook’s] content shaping algorithms filed the mass violence”, the report said.

In a statement, Meta’s Rafael Frankel said: “Our safety and integrity work in Myanmar remains guided by feedback from local civil society organisations and international institutions, including the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar; the human rights impact assessment we commissioned in 2018; as well as our ongoing human rights risk management.”

Additional reporting by Alex Hern


Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies

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