A court in military-ruled Myanmar has reportedly sentenced Australian economist Sean Turnell to three years in prison alongside deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was overthrown in last year’s coup.
The news was broken on Thursday morning by Reuters, citing a “source familiar with the proceedings” to the effect that the pair had been sentenced to “three years each, no hard labor.” Reuters reported that the sentencing took place in a closed court.
A former associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Turnell was working as an economic policy advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested in February 2021, just days after the military coup against her National League for Democracy (NLD) government. According to The Associated Press, he had arrived back in Myanmar from Australia to take up a new position as a special consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi less than a month before the coup. He has been in custody ever since.
The exact details of Turnell’s alleged offense remain unclear, though Myanmar state television claimed at the time of his arrest that he was attempting to flee the country with “secret state financial information.”
Turnell’s friend and fellow economist Tim Harcourt told The Age newspaper that the verdict was “outrageous” and said any suggestion that he had stolen secret documents was fanciful. “He should be released, deported, sent back to Australia now,” Harcourt said. “He’s nothing more than a technical economics advisor who wanted to lift Burmese people out of poverty.”
In June, Turnell and his co-defendants, who in addition to Aung San Suu Kyi also included three former ministers charged in the same case – were formally charged under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. The elastic and oft-abused colonial-era law prohibits the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is “directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.” All pleaded not guilty to the charge.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, Thursday’s sentence adds to the slew of convictions that she has already received since the coup, on charges ranging from sedition and the breach of COVID-19 protocols to the illegal import and possession of walkie-talkies.
The pair are among the highest profile of the 15,683 people who have been arrested for resisting the military administration, according to the running count being kept by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. More than 12,500 of these remain in detention.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction won’t materially affect her fate – she will remain in detention as long as the military junta is in power, sham court verdicts notwithstanding – for Turnell the sentence could be the prelude to his release and deportation back to Australia. At least, that is the routine that the military has often employed in the past with foreigners whom it has arrested for stepping across political red lines. The most recent example was the U.S. journalist Danny Fenster, who was arrested in May 2021 by the coup authorities. He was released and deported six months later, a few days after he was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison on sedition and other charges.
The one question concerns whether the junta will view Turnell’s unusual closeness to the NLD government in general, and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular, as a disqualifying factor. Much may depend on the extent of the Australian government’s efforts to secure his release in the days and weeks to come.
In an emailed statement, Elaine Pearson of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that with the verdict rendered, it was “critical that the Australian government take all necessary steps to pressure Myanmar’s junta to immediately release Turnell and send him home.”