Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi pleads not guilty to incitement as junta muzzles lawyers
Observers say barring her defense team from speaking to the media is undemocratic and illegal.
Myanmar’s detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has pled not guilty to charges of public incitement, according to sources involved in the case, in a hearing that the junta has barred her legal team from discussing with the media, citing concerns that doing so could “destabilize the country.”
Tuesday marked the first chance for the Nobel laureate, 76, who was arrested on Feb. 1 when the army deposed her National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a coup, to defend herself at the special court in the capital Naypyidaw against charges under Section 505 (b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, a source close to the proceedings told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Details of the hearing were not immediately clear because the military barred all five lawyers on Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal team from speaking with the media under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Lawyers for former President Win Myint and Naypyidaw Mayor Myo Aung—both co-defendants in the case—said earlier this month that they had decided to defend themselves against the charges.
Khin Maung Myint, a Yangon-based high court lawyer, told RFA it is illegal for the military to keep the Aung San Suu Kyi’s case hidden from the public.
“A lawyer or any other person should be able to speak out about the developments of the case without a restraining order,” he said.
“If one criticizes the quality of the case or speaks disrespectfully of those involved or witnesses or the court, then the person can be prosecuted under the Contempt of Court Act. Otherwise, the issuance of Section 144, which deprives citizens of their right to information, is, in fact, unconstitutional.”
The decision to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyers from speaking with reporters follows an Oct. 12 hearing in which former President Win Myint told the court that the military forced him to step down from his post on the day of the coup while defending himself against charges under Section 505 (b).
Following the disclosure to the media about that hearing by defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, the junta barred four members of Win Myint’s legal team—Khin Maung Zaw, Thair Maung Maung, Kyi Win and Min Min Soe—from speaking outs about the case.
In August, another member of the defense team, San Marlar Nyunt, had been made by authorities in Yangon to sign a pledge not to conduct interviews or contact the media or any foreign organizations.
Veteran high court lawyer Kyee Myint told RFA that barring all lawyers from talking to the media was illegal and said the move amounted to blatant interference with the judiciary.
“The 2008 Constitution explicitly states that the legislative, the executive and judicial sectors must act separately,” he said.
“The judge of the court, in a reply to Aung San Suu Kyi, had said lawyers could talk about the hearings, and thus the executive branch’s order can be seen as interference.”
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told RFA the ban was imposed because the lawyers’ statements “won’t contribute to the country’s stability.”
“There have been some exaggerations of the statements said in court—some cases seem to have been misrepresented,” he said.
“We have information teams to speak about legal cases, even at district level, and they will act accordingly when needed.”
‘Undemocratic, illegal moves’
However, lawyers and political observers disagreed with the junta’s reasoning.
Political analyst Than Soe Naing called the move “part of a political plot to imprison Aung San Suu Kyi and other top party leaders.”
“Politically speaking, [the junta is] determined to squash the NLD leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.
“Decisions are being made according to that line of thinking. They don’t have the legal right to do so, although they are still doing it. These are very undemocratic, illegal moves that are all politically motivated.”
Than Soe Naing said injustices committed for political purposes will continue as long as the military regime thrives.
Kyaw Thiha, a member of the NLD Central Committee, called the ban “a deliberate move.”
“They don’t want the words of Aung San Suu Kyi to be heard here. The president’s [recent] statements reaching outside have hurt them badly,” he said.
“They cannot handle the lawyers truthfully relaying the brave words [of the leaders] reaching the public. They are very afraid that the whole country will become unstable after learning the truth.”
Kyaw Thiha said the country is “headed for total annihilation” if the present situation continues because the military is “doing whatever it wants without any regard for democratic rights.”
Nearly nine months after the military’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,218 civilians and arrested at least 7,026, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The junta says it unseated the NLD government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday requested that the court hold hearings on the cases she faces every other week instead of weekly, citing ill health, but the judge refused her request.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.