Defense Begins Final Arguments in Trial of Burmese Dissident Suu Kyi

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009

BANGKOK, July 24 -- Final arguments began Friday in a Burmese court in the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate who faces five more years in detention if she is convicted of breaking the terms of her house arrest.

Suu Kyi was charged in May after a U.S. citizen from Falcon, Mo., eluded the tight security surrounding the villa where she was detained in Rangoon by swimming across a lake to the house to see her.

Attorneys for Suu Kyi have argued that because she did not invite the American, John Yettaw, the security forces who were supposed to be guarding her home should be held responsible for allowing him in. Suu Kyi has said that she allowed Yettaw, 53, to stay at her home because he was exhausted and that she did not want to get him into trouble.

Diplomats allowed to attend the session where the defense presented its closing argument said lawyers also attacked the legal basis of the case, saying that Suu Kyi's house arrest is illegal and that the laws applying to the case are contradictory.

The prosecution is expected to present its arguments when the hearing resumes Monday.

Suu Kyi, 64, is in uncertain health, and her supporters say she would be harmed if she is sentenced to significant time inside Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, where the trial is being held. The court is expected to reach its verdict in the next few weeks.

The case has been greeted with indignation around the world. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced it after a U.S. delegation met with Burmese officials at a Southeast Asian security summit in Thailand this week and called for Suu Kyi's release.

Few observers expect that to happen. They say that despite 13 years of house arrest -- imposed by the military junta that rules Burma after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990 -- she remains the government's most formidable opponent. The junta's generals plan to hold elections next year, and analysts say the government will probably want to prevent her from taking any part.

Even if Burmese authorities release Suu Kyi and hold fair elections, opposition leaders say, the generals have rigged the constitution to ensure that they will remain in power. The constitution, which was drafted by the military, guarantees soldiers 25 percent of the seats in parliament, allows the army to write its own budget and gives it the right to impose military rule almost at will.

Opposition activists have told Western diplomats that they are unlikely to contest the elections unless Suu Kyi is released and the constitution is amended.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed legislation maintaining sanctions on Burma, which followed House approval earlier in the week. The measure now goes to President Obama, who has already decided to extend a ban on U.S. investment in Burma.

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