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Suu Kyi Verdict Douses Hope of Democratic Reforms in Burma

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By Tim Johnston and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

BANGKOK, Aug. 11 -- Burma's military rulers on Tuesday snuffed out whatever dim hopes remained for democratic reform in their country, as a government-run court sentenced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months under house arrest for hosting an American intruder who entered her heavily guarded villa uninvited.

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The verdict drew swift international condemnation, with President Obama saying it violated "universal principles of human rights" and European leaders calling for new sanctions against Burma. The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session to discuss the issue.

The decision by the court at Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison essentially sidelines Burma's most popular political figure from national elections next year, and it sets the stage for a political contest that will be tilted toward government-backed candidates.

In a rare public statement at the close of the trial, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, warned her Burmese jailers that the verdict would weigh as heavily upon them as it has on her and her companions. "The court will pronounce on the innocence or guilt of a few individuals," she said. "The verdict itself will constitute a judgment on the whole of the law, justice and constitutionalism in our country."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who recently met Burmese ruler Than Shwe to press for Suu Kyi's release, issued a statement saying that he was "deeply disappointed by the verdict," which undermines the "credibility" of the political process in Burma, also called Myanmar.

Two co-defendants in Suu Kyi's trial -- Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, a mother and daughter who have been the democracy activist's companions and housekeepers for five years -- were also sentenced to 18 months of house arrest.

Separately, the court sentenced John W. Yettaw, the 54-year-old American who swam across a lake to get to Suu Kyi's home, to seven years in prison, including four years of hard labor.

Obama expressed concern about the fate of Yettaw, a diabetic, saying his sentence was "out of proportion with his actions."

"Today's unjust decision reminds us of the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma who, like Aung San Suu Kyi, have been denied their liberty because of their pursuit of a government that respects the will, rights and aspirations of all Burmese citizens," Obama added. "They, too, should be freed."

The toughest response came from the European Union, which vowed to impose new economic sanctions against individuals responsible for Suu Kyi's continued imprisonment. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a U.N. embargo on all arms exports to Burma, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged new restrictions on Burma's export of rubies and hardwood, two key sources of government revenue.

Even Burma's friends, including Malaysia, which was instrumental in bringing Burma into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a decade ago, expressed dismay.

The U.N. Security Council failed to reach agreement on a statement that would condemn Burma and demand that Suu Kyi, 64, be immediately released. Russia, among other countries, expressed reservations. China, Burma's closest ally on the council, insisted in the closed-door session that the council had no business interfering in Burma's courts, according to U.N. diplomats.


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