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Australian economist Sean Turnell sentenced to three years in prison in secret trial in Myanmar

Australian economist Sean Turnell has been sentenced to three years in a Myanmar jail for violating the country's official state secrets act.

The Sydney economist was working in Myanmar as an adviser to former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but was arrested in February 2021 when the country's military seized power in a coup.

The 58-year-old has always denied the charges against him.

His trial was held behind closed doors in a military court in the capital Naypyidaw.

Australian officials and the media were banned from the court room and lawyers were gagged from speaking publicly.

Ha Vu, Turnell's wife, said the news was "heartbreaking". 

"It's heartbreaking for me, our daughter, Sean's 85-year-old father, and the rest of our family to hear that my husband, Professor Sean Turnell, was convicted and sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment," she said in a statement posted on social media. 

"Sean has been one of Myanmar's greatest supporters for over 20 years and has worked tirelessly to strengthen Myanmar's economy.

"My husband has already been in a Myanmar prison for almost two-thirds of his sentence. Please consider the contributions that he has made to Myanmar, and deport him now."

Turnell has been in detention for almost 20 months, which a court source said would count as time served. His sentence could see him detained until February 2024.

He was also facing charges under the immigration law, but local media reported the sentences would be served concurrently.

He was arrested five days after the military takeover by security forces at a hotel in Yangon, the country's biggest city, while waiting for a car to take him to the city's international airport.

He had arrived back in Myanmar from Australia to take up a new position as a special consultant to Suu Kyi less than a month before he was detained.

Myanmar's colonial-era official secrets act criminalises the possession, collection, recording, publishing, or sharing of state information that is "directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy".

The charge carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

According to local media reports, Turnell was accused of having classified documents in his possession.

He reportedly told the court these were not classified, but simply his economic advice to the civilian government.

Suu Kyi was also sentenced to three years for violating the official state secrets act.

She had already been sentenced to 17 years' jail for other offences.

A case of 'hostage diplomacy'

Prior to the verdict, a source close to the court told the ABC Turnell had been in good health, both physically and mentally, during the trial.

His reaction to the military court's decision is not yet known. 

Observers have frequently described his case as one of "hostage diplomacy", which the Myanmar embassy in Australia has denied.

For months he was held in the country's notorious Insein prison in Yangon, before being relocated to a special military court inside a prison compound in the capital Naypyidaw, where Suu Kyi is also being held.

'A nice bloke on trumped up charges'

Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called for the economist's immediate release.

"The politically motivated conviction of Australian Sean Turnell is a cruel injustice," she said.

"He was convicted after a trial in closed court without proper access to legal counsel.

"It's critical that the Australian government take all necessary steps to pressure Myanmar's junta to immediately release Turnell and send him home."

Friend Tim Harcourt, an economist and professor at the University of Technology Sydney, has known Turnell for 40 years.

"He's a great economist, nice bloke and a great human being," he said.

"His main cause in life is to reduce poverty around the world and he'd developed particular expertise in Myanmar."

He said Turnell had been detained on "trumped up charges", and while he was relieved Turnell did not receive the maximum sentence of 14 years, three years was too long.

"In my opinion, three days is too long ... It's just a tragedy that he's been locked up for really doing good."

"Hopefully common sense and justice can prevail and Sean can return to his wife and family in Australia soon."

Both Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the ASEAN chair, and UN special envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer made appeals to junta leader Min Aung Hlaing at the request of the Australian government. 

"Sean's case just shows that the Myanmar junta will really stop at nothing," Ms Pearson said. 

"It's now time to turn up the heat on the military junta and that means employing targeted sanctions."

Australia's top priority in Myanmar

In a statement, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the Australian government rejected Thursday's court ruling and called for his immediate release.

"The Australian Government has consistently rejected the charges against Professor Turnell during the more than 19 months he had been unjustly detained by the Myanmar military regime."

"We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for Professor Turnell until he has returned to his family in Australia."

She said Australia's Chargé d'Affaires and consular officials in Myanmar "made every effort to attend the verdict but were denied access to the court".

In the wake of the coup, the Australian government has ended military cooperation with the Myanmar army, also called the Tatmadaw, and downgraded diplomatic relations. 

Australia has imposed no new sanctions since the coup, although Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said targeted economic sanctions are under active consideration.

She has repeatedly said that Turnell is Australia's top priority in Myanmar. 

The Foreign Minister said consular assistance would continue to be provided and asked that his family's privacy be respected.

Since the military coup, more than 2,300 people have been killed by the junta, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

More than 15,000 have been arrested, more than 1.3 million people have been displaced, 28,000 homes have been destroyed and villages had been burned.

The ABC has also approached the Myanmar Embassy in Australia and the Myanmar Information Ministry. 

Previously the embassy in Canberra said Turnell had consular phone access to his family and to Australian officials in Yangon, but did not answer the ABC's questions about why consulate staff were unable to observe the proceedings. 

"[The] State Administration Council has never practised such a kind of hostage diplomacy," the embassy told the ABC in an email this week. 

On the "unwanted" anniversary of Turnell's imprisonment in February, his wife Ha Vu said "in our wildest dream or imagination, we never ever thought we would face this kind of challenge". 

The day after the military's takeover, he posted a message on Twitter that he was: "Safe for now but heartbroken for what all this means for the people of Myanmar. The bravest, kindest people I know. They deserve so much better."

The last interview Turnell gave was to the BBC. He was forced to cut the call short as he was being detained "and perhaps charged with something, I don't know what that would be, could be anything at all of course". 

The last thing he said was: "Yes, I'm OK," before hanging up.

ABC/AP/Reuters

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