Australian officials kept out of Myanmar court as Australian Sean Turnell prepares to go on trial

Australian officials kept out of Myanmar court as Australian Sean Turnell prepares to go on trial

Australian embassy officials in Myanmar have been kept out the courtroom where Sydney economist Sean Turnell has appeared on charges of violating the country’s official secrets act, raising more doubt about whether he will receive a fair trial.

Key points:No consular officials have been allowed to observe the court proceedingsDFAT says it has registered its concerns with Myanmar’s ambassador in CanberraHuman Rights Watch says the junta is using Professor Turnell as a “chess piece to get to Aung San Suu Kyi”Professor Turnell, 57, was working as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi before her government was toppled by the military in a coup in February.

He was arrested five days after the military seized power and was later accused of trying to flee the country with “secret state financial information”.

The Australian appeared in a court in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw last Thursday and hearings have now been scheduled weekly.

But in a development that has concerned Australian officials and Professor Turnell’s supporters, no consular officials have been allowed to observe proceedings.

“The Australian embassy was not granted access to Professor Turnell’s court hearing on September 23,” a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told the ABC.

“We have registered our serious concerns with the Myanmar ambassador in Canberra, and senior representatives in Naypyidaw.

“The Australian government has made clear to Myanmar authorities our expectation that we receive timely advice on Professor Turnell’s case, including court hearings. We have requested access to all future hearings.”

Sean Turnell’s wife Ha Vu has pleaded for the junta to release the economist.(Supplied)Manny Maung from Human Rights Watch told the ABC the lack of transparency was a worrying development because Myanmar courts did not follow due process.

“It is really, really unacceptable and it makes me feel very uncomfortable that there is no-one there to monitor the process and have an unbiased view of proceedings,” Ms Maung said.

“Especially because we know these charges are trumped up and this is a sham trial basically using Sean Turnell as chess piece to get to Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Ms Suu Kyi and three former cabinet ministers from her elected government have also been charged with violating the official state secrets act.

They will go on trial alongside the Australian economist.

Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy Party, won 83 per cent of the vote in last November’s general election, but the military junta claimed the vote was marred by fraud.

Ever since General Min Aung Hlaing took control of the South-East Asian nation on February 1, hundreds of thousands of people have protested against military rule, only to be met by violent security forces cracking down on dissent.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says 1,125 people have been killed and 6,803 have been arrested, charged or sentenced.

Prior to his arrest, Professor Turnell had been working with elected officials on Myanmar’s economic recovery plans following the first wave of COVID-19, and had access to many government documents.

Turnell family friend Tim Harcourt told the ABC he was concerned Australian officials were being kept in the dark as Professor Turnell’s case moved through the court system.

“I’m not completely surprised by it, but I’m naturally disappointed,” Professor Harcourt said.

“I think for transparency it’s important to have international diplomats there but given the usual modus operandi of the regime I’m not initially caught by surprise.”

Photographs published in the country’s state-run media earlier this year appeared to show Professor Turnell inside Yangon’s Insein Prison having his heartbeat checked and then receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.(Supplied: Myanmar state media)The Australian government has again called for Professor Turnell’s immediate release and has described his detention as “arbitrary”.

Ms Maung said it was increasingly clear that “whatever negotiating power or whatever leverage the Australian government has with the junta is minimal”.

“This indicates more than ever that Australia should be imposing targeted sanctions on Myanmar because this is a junta that is not going to negotiate or play within international rules,” she said.

“They should be looking to hold this junta accountable for crimes against humanity and the arbitrary detention of thousands of people, not just Sean Turnell.”

The Australian government has suspended military ties with Myanmar and redirected aid money but has not imposed sanctions.

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