Monday, August 3, 2009

Suu Kyi’s Trial Gives Rare Glimpse into Burma’s Judicial System

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — A political trial in Burma that could prolong its pro-democracy icon’s isolation by five more years has opened a rare window for the international community to judge the quality of justice in the military-ruled country.

Many foreign envoys based in Rangoon, the former capital, have eagerly grabbed this chance. They have shown up in numbers when given access to the largely secret trial of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, being held in a decrepit courtroom inside the notorious Insein Prison in northern Rangoon.

Last Friday marked the latest in this diplomatic show of force, when foreign envoys packed the rear of the court to mirror the unprecedented international attention this bizarre trial has drawn since it began in early May.

"There were about 20 to 25 diplomats in the court. They were Europe, the US, China, South Korea and other Asian countries," a European diplomat who attended the trial on July 31 said in a telephone interview from Rangoon. "They were mostly of the ambassadorial rank."

It was a number as large as that present on the third day of the trial in late May. At the time, some 30 diplomats were given the nod by the junta, otherwise known to be secretive and paranoid, to get a rare glimpse of Suu Kyi’s battle with Burma’s justice system.

And this time, too, the 64-year-old Suu Kyi used the occasion to openly engage with the diplomatic corps, a practice that has been denied to her during the 14 years she has been kept under house arrest in her lakeside home in Rangoon.

"She appeared relaxed, confident and dignified when she thanked the diplomats for coming and showing interest in the trial," the diplomat revealed. "There was also a surreal moment when she was laughing and joking with her legal team as they waited for the judges to enter."

When they did, the two judges presiding over this case had a brief announcement: the verdict, due that day, will not be given. Judgment day was postponed until August 11, since the judges "needed more time to explore the details of the case."

Suu Kyi appeared relaxed in court that day, wearing a pale pink blouse and a dark purple traditional Burmese longyi. "Sorry for the inconvenience," she reportedly told some diplomats after the judges delayed their verdict. "You may want to come back on August 11."

Yet, Suu Kyi’s lawyers do not expect this delay in the verdict to change the outcome in the trial, where the widely popular opposition leader has been charged for violating the terms of her house arrest when a U.S. citizen showed up as an uninvited guest in her house and spent two nights in early May.

"She was not optimistic from the beginning. She is ready to face the worst," Nyan Win, one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers, told IPS from Rangoon.

Such pessimism stems from the manner in which the trial was conducted. "This trial was not a free and fair one; not a public hearing," Nyan Win noted. "That was our main worry, this lack of openness, which is practiced in our country for all political cases."

Closed trials have been common under the current military regime, indicative of its oppressive rule. The victims have been pro-democracy activists, who make up the majority of the over 2,100 political prisoners presently languishing in Burmese jails. And verdicts have been severely harsh, with some sentenced to over 100 years in prison.

These trials follow a familiar pattern aimed at trampling any hint of "fairness" and "justice" in the courtroom. "In all politically motivated cases, military intelligence people usually sit in the trial and monitor the court process, actions of judges, lawyers and other judicial staff openly," says Aung Htoo, general secretary of the Burma Lawyers’ Council, a network of Burmese lawyers operating from the Thai-Burmese border.

"By holding trials in the compound of the prisons, the authorities (implicitly) threaten all relevant persons in a proceeding," Aung Htoo wrote in an e-mail interview. "They (military intelligence) even intercept private meetings held between the defence lawyers and the accused."

"Many times, they (military intelligence) send judgments, already written prematurely, to the judges only to read," he revealed. "The judiciary has been used as an instrument to crush down the political opponents and human rights activists."

This court culture is now under scrutiny after the junta slapped Suu Kyi with a legal case—the first political trial she has been subjected to since being placed under house arrest for the first time in July 1989.

"There has never been a [more] high-profile case than this one. It has drawn so much international attention and international pressure," says Soe Aung, the spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a network of Burmese political activists living in exile. "It is not usual for diplomats to attend such cases."

"The Burmese regime is feeling the heat both inside and outside the country due to all the attention on this trial," Soe Aung added. "Prolonging the trial process by postponing the verdict till mid-August is one of the signs that they (the regime) are worried about growing international pressure."

As the world wait for the judgment, the speculation among the diplomatic community about Suu Kyi’s fate, indicates that she may be declared guilty by court.

"Western diplomats say she will get a three year sentence out of the maximum five years," an informed source in Rangoon told IPS. "They say she will be first kept in Insein Prison and then moved back to her house."

Asian diplomats, particularly from Southeast Asia, have another view, the diplomatic source added.

"They say her sentence will be commuted to house arrest without much delay because the (Burmese government) wants to look good ahead of the UN General Assembly coming up in late September."

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