BANGKOK – A court in military-ruled Myanmar convicted the country’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi of corruption Friday, sentencing her to seven years in prison in the last of a string of criminal cases against her, a legal official said.
The court’s action leaves her with a total of 33 years to serve in prison after a series of politically tinged prosecutions since the army toppled her elected government in February 2021.
The case that ended Friday involved five offenses under the anti-corruption law and followed earlier convictions on seven other corruption counts, each of which was punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
The 77-year-old Suu Kyi has also been convicted of several other offenses, including illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, breaching the country’s official secrets act, sedition and election fraud.
Her previous convictions had landed her with a total of 26 years’ imprisonment.
Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say the numerous charges against her and her allies are an attempt to legitimize the military’s seizure of power while eliminating her from politics before an election it has promised for 2023.
In the five counts of corruption decided Friday, Suu Kyi was alleged to have abused her position and caused a loss of state funds by neglecting to follow financial regulations in granting permission to Win Myat Aye, a Cabinet member in her former government, to hire, buy and maintain a helicopter.
Suu Kyi was the de facto head of government, holding the title of state counsellor. Win Myint, who was president in her government, was a co-defendant in the same case.
Friday’s verdict, delivered on the outskirts of the capital Naypyitaw, was made known by a legal official who insisted on anonymity for fear of being punished by the authorities. The trial was closed to the media, diplomats and spectators, and her lawyers were barred by a gag order from talking about it.
The legal official said Suu Kyi received sentences of three years for each of four charges, to be served concurrently, and four years for the charge related to the helicopter purchase, for a total of seven years. Win Myint received the same sentences.
Win Myat Aye, at the center of the case, escaped arrest and is now Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management in the National Unity Government, established by the military's opponents as a parallel administration by elected legislators who were barred from taking their seats when the army seized power last year. The military has declared NUG to be an outlawed “terrorist organization.”
The defendants denied all charges, and her lawyers are expected to appeal in the coming days. The official also said both Suu Kyi and Win Myint appeared to be in good health.
Cases against Suu Kyi were manufactured and court verdicts predetermined by the military, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement.
“Due process and a free and fair trial were never remotely possible under the circumstances of this political persecution against her," he added.
The end of the court cases against Suu Kyi, at least for now, raises the possibility that she would be allowed outside visitors, which she has been denied since she was detained.
Myanmar’s military rulers, who have faced diplomatic and political sanctions for their human rights abuses and suppression of democracy, have repeatedly denied all requests to meet with her, including from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which seeks to help mediate an end to the crisis in Myanmar that some United Nations experts have characterized as a civil war because of the armed opposition to military rule.
An August statement from the military government said that, "depending on the circumstances after the completion of the judiciary process, we will consider how to proceed.”
Due to her age, the 33 years in prison that Suu Kyi now faces “amount to an effective life sentence against her,” said Robertson, adding that the convictions were aimed at keeping her out of politics and undermining her party's landslide 2020 election victory.
Nay Phone Latt, a spokesperson for the National Unity Government opposition group, charged Myanmar's judiciary with being “completely unjust.”
He said in a online message that the ruling military council might release Suu Kyi and other prisoners or make similar gestures if it is necessary for their own interests, but revolutionary forces would move forward without losing sight of their goal of a democratic federal union without the involvement of the military.
Suu Kyi is being held in a newly constructed separate building in the prison in Naypyitaw, near the courthouse where her trial was held, with three policewomen whose duty is to assist her.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s martyred independence hero Gen. Aung San, spent almost 15 years as a political prisoner under house arrest between 1989 and 2010.
Her tough stand against the military rule in Myanmar turned her into a symbol of nonviolent struggle for democracy, and won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Her National League for Democracy party initially came to power after easily winning the 2015 general election, ushering in a true civilian government for the first time since a 1962 military coup.
But after coming to power, Suu Kyi was criticized for showing deference to the military while ignoring atrocities it is credibly accused of committing in a 2017 crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory again in the 2020 election, but less than three months afterwards, elected lawmakers were kept from taking their seats in Parliament and top members of her government and party were detained.
The army said it acted because there had been massive voting fraud in the 2020 election, but independent election observers did not find any major irregularities.
The army’s takeover in 2021 triggered widespread peaceful protests that security forces tried to crush with deadly forces and that soon erupted into armed resistance.
Myanmar security forces have killed at least 2,685 civilians and arrested 16,651, according to a detailed list compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organization that tracks killings and arrests.