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Aung San Suu Kyi gets 18 months under house arrest

world Updated: Aug 11, 2009 17:26 IST

Reuters
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A court in army-ruled Myanmar on Tuesday sentenced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months in detention, a verdict that drew condemnation abroad and will keep her off the political stage ahead of next year's elections.

The court handed down a three-year prison term for violation of an internal security law, but that was immediately halved on the orders of the military government, which said the Nobel peace laureate could serve the time in her Yangon home.

"Aung San Suu Kyi ... was found guilty of the charges and I hereby pass the sentence of three years' imprisonment," said the judge, drawing gasps from the courtroom.

Moments after the verdict was passed, however, Myanmar's home minister, Major-General Muang Oo, stood before the court and announced that the junta had decided to commute her sentence.

Muang Oo said they had taken into account the fact that Suu Kyi was the daughter of Myanmar independence hero Aung San as well as "the need to preserve community peace and tranquility and prevent any disturbances in the road map to democracy".

The "road map" refers to plans laid down by the junta towards what it sees as democracy, which culminate in multi-party elections planned for next year.

Muang Oo's announcement appeared to contradict the junta's repeated statements to the international community that its judiciary is independent.

Critics say the case was fabricated by the military to keep the charismatic Suu Kyi out of circulation ahead of the polls.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "saddened and angry" at the sentencing of the former Burma's democracy icon.

"The facade of her prosecution is made more monstrous because its real objective is to sever her bond with the people for whom she is a beacon of hope and resistance," he said in a statement.

Australia demanded that the junta immediately release Suu Kyi along with 2,000 political prisoners.

Suu Kyi has already spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention of one sort or another.

The latest charges stemmed from a mysterious incident in which an American, John Yettaw, swam to Suu Kyi's lakeside home in May and stayed there uninvited for two days, which breached the terms of her house arrest and broke a security law protecting the state from "subversive elements".

Yettaw was sentenced to seven years' hard labour in a parallel trial on three charges, including immigration offences and "swimming in a non-swimming area".

Journalists had previously been blocked from the trial but were allowed to attend the reading of Tuesday's verdict.

LENIENT?

Suu Kyi's detention was described as a suspended sentence rather than house arrest, although restrictions placed on her by the junta appeared similar to those of her previous detention.

Analysts said that by giving her the minimum sentence and then cutting it in half -- and allowing her to serve it at home -- the junta was hoping to depict itself to outsiders as lenient.

The commuted term may have been a ploy to appease Asian allies in particular, among them China, India and Thailand, whose trade has propped up a state crippled by international sanctions.

"This is a very calibrated verdict in that everybody knows that the West is going to be unhappy," said Ian Holliday, a Myanmar expert from the University of Hong Kong.

"The regime is calculating that by commuting it down to one-and-a-half years and by allowing her to serve in her home rather than in prison, most Asian states will be prepared to go along with that."

The hearings were held in Yangon's Insein Prison amid tight security, with at least 2,000 security personnel in the area.

State newspapers all ran the same commentary on Tuesday that implicitly warned Suu Kyi's supporters not to cause trouble and told outsiders not to meddle in Myanmar's affairs.

"The people who favour democracy do not want to see riots and protests that can harm their goal," said the commentary in the New Light of Myanmar and other newspapers.

Yettaw was returned to prison from hospital late on Monday after suffering several seizures. His lawyer has said the American suffers from epilepsy, diabetes and heart trouble. Yettaw, a Mormon, told the court that God had sent him to warn Suu Kyi she would be assassinated by "terrorists".