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Protesters gather as Aung San Suu Kyi goes on trial

Video by Shona BHATTACHARYYA , Jonathan WALSH

Latest update : 2009-05-19

The trial of Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi opened Monday amid tight security at an infamous jail in the country's main city. At least one person was arrested near the prison, where some 200 Suu Kyi supporters were gathered.

AFP - Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial at a notorious prison on Monday, charged with violating her house arrest by sheltering an American man who swam to her lakeside home.

Riot police tightly sealed off Insein prison near Yangon for the hearing, setting up barbed wire barricades and blocking all roads to prevent possible protests in support of the ailing Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The 63-year-old faces up to five years in jail and could be barred from standing in elections promised by the ruling junta next year if convicted on the charges, prompting a wave of outage around the world.

"The trial has started," a Myanmar official told AFP on condition of anonymity, without giving any more details. The trial was being held behind closed doors.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the last 19 years in detention, many of them at the crumbling mansion in Yangon where the Myanmar regime keeps her in virtual isolation from the outside world.

She was taken to Insein on Thursday and charged with breaching security laws by allowing US national John Yettaw to spend two days at her residence, after he used home-made flippers to swim across the lake earlier this month.

Several dozen of Aung San Suu Kyi's sympathisers stood at the security cordon set up around the jail on Monday, witnesses said.

Her lawyer said earlier that she would protest her innocence.

"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has studied the section of the law under which she was charged and says that she didn't commit any crime," lawyer Kyi Win told AFP. Daw is a term of respect in the Burmese language.

"She just felt sorry for this man (Yettaw) as he had leg cramps after he swam across the lake. That's why she allowed him to stay," Kyi Win said.

He said Yettaw had also come to the house in 2008 but that the two political assistants who live with Aung San Suu Kyi had asked him to go back, adding that her doctor had informed authorities about the earlier visit at the time.

Yettaw and the two assistants -- who have formerly been described as maids -- would also appear in court for the opening of the trial, Kyi Win said, although there was no official confirmation.

It was not immediately clear how long the trial would take, with estimates from lawyers and rights groups ranging from one day to several weeks.

The junta, headed by reclusive Senior General Than Shwe, has kept Aung San Suu Kyi in detention for a total of 13 years since 1990, when it refused to recognise her party's landslide victory in Myanmar's last elections.

Her latest six-year period of detention was due to expire on May 27, but Yettaw's visit has apparently provided the generals with the ammunition they need to extend her detention past the 2010 elections.

Critics say the polls are a sham that the junta hopes to use to gain legitimacy, erase the results of the 1990 polls won by her National League for Democracy party and consolidate the military's grip on power.

Under a constitution forced through last year, Aung San Suu Kyi is already barred from becoming president after the elections as she had children with her British husband Michael Aris, an academic who died in 1999.

The constitution also bars those convicted of criminal offences from standing in elections.

Analysts say the junta's determination to keep her locked up shows that they still perceive the soft-spoken activist as a major threat to their iron rule over Myanmar, which has been controlled by the military since 1962.

Several protests were planned in major Asian cities including Bangkok and Hong Kong in support of Aung San Suu Kyi.

US President Barack Obama formally extended sanctions against Myanmar on Friday, despite an official US review of policy on the country, which is also known as Burma.

There has however been no official statement from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, while Asian powers China and India have also stayed silent.


Date created : 2009-05-18