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Myanmar Crisis

Suu Kyi's Myanmar legal team struggles to gain client's rights

Trial goes nowhere as officials and police wait for 'reply from superiors'

Aung San Suu Kyi at an ASEAN Summit in Manila, the Philippines, in November 2017. Suu Kyi's lawyers have yet to hold a private meeting with their client.   © Reuters

YANGON/BANGKOK -- Weeks have gone by since the trial of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to have begun, but the process, as well as lawsuits filed by her legal team, remain in a state of limbo, members of the team told Nikkei Asia.

Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other politicians were arrested on Feb. 1, the day lawmakers who had won elections in November were to be seated in parliament. Instead, the military -- apparently miffed that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a wide majority of the seats up for grabs -- staged a coup.

Since then, Suu Kyi's legal team has grown frustrated as authorities remain mum or appear not to take action when the lawyers press for their client's rights, such as private client-attorney meetings. The eight-person team has also dwindled as two of the lawyers have gone incognito after running afoul of police for offering their services to the pro-democracy movement.

"In the first place," Min Min Soe, one of Suu Kyi's lawyers, told Nikkei, "we didn't know who the case inspector or prosecutor were. We only came to know after the first trial hearing on Feb. 15. Then we came to know that we had to meet with [a] police officer" to submit some forms.

The legal team also has been unable to meet with Suu Kyi, who was detained on Feb 1. Team members first went to the district police station in Naypyitaw but were told by police she was not there.

"I had the first meeting with Amay Suu [Suu Kyi] via video conferencing on Mar 31," Min Min Soe said. "Then [we] met with her during the trial" via videoconference.

Junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on March 27.   © Reuters

The lawyer went on: "When we had a conversation [at the first meeting], we couldn't talk a lot, [since] police officers were next to both of us. This teleconference took place on a mobile phone from the Zabu Thiri Township police station. The internet connection was not good and went down sometimes."

The legal team also struggled to meet with other clients and to receive signatures on power of attorney letters.

Suu Kyi faces six charges, with legal proceedings meant to take place in the capital of Naypyitaw and the commercial hub of Yangon.

Min Min Soe also expressed irritation at not receiving concrete answers from police regarding a power of attorney arrangement and on meeting with Suu Kyi.

Eventually, in March, two of Suu Kyi's lawyers received signed power of attorney letters. On April 26, more than two months after the first hearing, the rest of Suu Kyi's lawyers received them.

But none of the lawyers have been able to hold a private meeting with Suu Kyi.

"The legal process is slow and delayed for sure," Min Min Soe said. "They explained to us why the process was delayed as they said they have to report to their superior."

Suu Kyi, who is in her mid-70s, appeared healthy during the court appearances, according to the legal team.

Khin Maung Zaw, another senior legal team member, said the team is unlikely to receive direct instructions from their client any time soon.

Attorney Khin Maung Zaw says Suu Kyi's demands to meet with her lawyers have gone unanswered.   © Reuters

"We don't even have the basic fair trial rights of our client," Khin Maung Zaw said in a recent interaction with Nikkei. "The approval to meet with our client Aung San Suu Kyi has been postponed week after week.

"The police at the court told us they have already sent the report to the superiors. So, I told the court on April 26 that it is the fundamental right of an accused to meet her lawyer and give instructions privately. We already applied for that meeting in the early stages of the case and haven't got that meeting until now."

Khin Maung Zaw said Suu Kyi during a recent trial hearing in Naypyitaw repeatedly demanded her right to meet with her lawyers and to ask for their opinions.

Her demands have not been accepted.

Nikkei has also contacted Naypyitaw police to ask why Suu Kyi and her lawyers are being kept apart.

Myint Naing is the chief officer at the Zabu Thiri Township police station and is in charge of power-of-attorney and lawyer-client meetings. He told Nikkei that he has completed the necessary paperwork for a meeting.

"We have already sent the report to our superior," Myint Naing said. "That's what we can say since we don't know more."

He refused to give a hint of whether a meeting might take place soon.

"As you know I am a police officer from a station. [I] wouldn't be able to do much," he said, adding that he has no authority to make a decision on the matter.

Lawyer Min Min Soe in early April said the team representing Suu Kyi had received no threats from authorities.

But in late April, Nikkei learned from sources that two team members are on the run, having run afoul of police for their legal assistance to the pro-democracy movement.

The rest of the team has lost contact with the two.

The junta has described pro-democracy organizations as unlawful associations. In Naypyitaw, the legal team also represents President Win Myint and Naypyitaw Mayor Myo Aung.

Only five members of the original team are now available to represent Suu Kyi should her trial get on track in Naypyitaw.

"I would like to say that there have been restrictions on the case," Khin Maung Zaw said, "but for the sake of the clients' benefits, we have to talk about that. The cases have not started at all. Just trial [hearings] for now due to those restrictions."

Suu Kyi's whereabouts for the past three-plus months also remains unknown, though her lawyers said it appears she is being held at her house, at least that's what it looked like on the videoconference feed.

Military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun in April told Russia's RIA that the junta would not let Suu Kyi meet with her lawyers for "national security" reasons. "We have information that the leaders of the protesters want to establish contact with her through a lawyer. Perhaps they want to arrange an illegal connection and get some kind of secret instructions."

Khin Maung Zaw keeps fighting.

"Whatever Gen. Zaw Min Tun has said," the senior legal team member said, "the right to a fair trial cannot be ignored. I want all the rights of the clients [to be granted] as soon as possible."

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