Australian professor faces 14-year jail term in Myanmar

Sean Turnell was an adviser to former leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Sean Turnell, a detained Australian who has been charged with breaching Myanmar's official secrets law, receives a Covid-19 vaccine does at the Insein prison in Yangon. Myanmar News Agency via AFP
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The Australian government has demanded the "immediate release" of a professor who has been jailed in Myanmar for a year and now faces a 14-year prison term.

Sean Turnell, an Australian economics professor, was working as an adviser to civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested last February, just days after a military coup.

He has been charged with breaching Myanmar's official secrets law and faces a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison if found guilty.

"Professor Turnell's detention is unjust, and we reject the allegations against him," Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.

"We once again call for Professor Turnell's immediate release."

The coup sparked mass protests and a bloody military crackdown, with more than 1,500 civilians killed and nearly 12,000 arrested as of February 4, figures compiled by a local monitoring group show.

Human rights groups have raised concerns about Prof Turnell's prosecution, particularly after the Australian embassy was denied access to his court hearing in September.

"Consistent with basic standards of justice and transparency, we expect that Professor Turnell should have unimpeded access to his lawyers, and that Australian officials be able to observe his court proceedings," Ms Payne said.

Prof Turnell was in the middle of a phone interview with the BBC when he was detained after the coup.

"I've just been detained at the moment, and perhaps charged with something, I don't know what that would be, could be anything at all of course," Prof Turnell told the broadcaster at the time.

"Everyone's been very polite and all that, but obviously I'm not free to move or anything like that."

Call for sanctions after massacres

Last month, a coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the Refugee Council of Australia, called on the Australian government to impose sanctions on Myanmar's military leaders.

Myanmar villagers and anti-coup fighters have accused troops of burning hundreds of homes in the country's restive north-west, as the junta seeks to crush resistance to its rule.

Mass protests against last year's coup have been met with a brutal military crackdown, and violence has flared across Myanmar as civilians form "people's defence forces" (PDF) to oppose the junta.

A woman from Bin village in the Sagaing region, which has seen recent clashes, said troops had arrived in the early hours of Monday.

"They shelled artillery and fired guns before coming in," she said on Friday, adding that the sound had sent villagers fleeing.

Troops then set fire to around 200 houses, including her own, she said, requesting anonymity.

"We could not bring anything with us. We took some warm clothes only, and then we just ran away."

(20/31) (FILE) - Police officers search for demonstrators hiding during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, 08 March 2021 (reissued 27 January 2022).  On 01 February 2021 the Myanmar Army arrested democratically elected political leaders and seized control of the country.  Protests erupted nationwide leading to violent clashes and a military retaliation that had left at least 1,000 dead within the first six months.  According to the United Nations, by early December 2021 over 280,000 people were still internally displaced in Myanmar due to armed clashes and insecurity.   EPA / STRINGER  ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET

Troops also torched houses in nearby Inn Ma Hte village after a local pro-junta militia was attacked by anti-coup fighters who then fled, one of the rebels said.

"When the PDF left the village, the army burnt it down," the fighter said, adding that 600 houses had been torched.

Local media also reported that hundreds of homes had been razed in the two villages, and images obtained by AFP, said to be of Bin village, showed the remains of dozens of burnt-out buildings.

AFP could not independently verify the reports from the remote region.

The fires consumed properties, motorbikes and carts, said another local who was helping to co-ordinate aid for those displaced from Inn Ma Hte.

"For them, it will be difficult to regain their livelihoods," he said, requesting anonymity.

State-run TV ran a report on Thursday accusing PDF fighters of starting the fires, and published images it claimed showed burnt-out buildings destroyed by "terrorists".

The South-East Asian country has been in chaos since a coup last February, with more than 1,500 people killed in a crackdown on dissent, a local monitoring group said.

In August the junta said it was considering raising village militias to combat opposition to its rule, as it struggles to assert control over vast parts of the country.

Sagaing has experienced regular clashes and bloody reprisals.

In mid-December the US and UN condemned the junta over what Washington described as "credible and sickening" reports of the killing of 11 villagers, including children, in the Sagaing region.

Updated: February 06, 2022, 6:11 AM