BANGKOK (AP) — Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar who was ousted in a de facto coup this year, was convicted of incitement and another charge Monday and sentenced to four years in prison — in a trial widely criticized as yet a further attempt by the country’s military rulers to roll back the democratic gains of recent years.
It also serves to cement a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest for resisting the Southeast Asian nation’s generals but then worked uncomfortably alongside them when they promised to usher in democratic rule.
Monday’s verdict was the first expected in a series of cases against 76-year-old Suu Kyi, who was arrested when the army seized power on Feb. 1 and prevented her National League for Democracy party from starting a second five-year term in office following a landslide electoral victory.
If found guilty of all the charges she faces, Suu Kyi could be sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. She is being held by the military at an unknown location, and the court did not make clear Monday whether she would be moved to a prison or kept under some form of house arrest, according to a legal official, who relayed the verdict to The Associated Press and who insisted on anonymity for fear of being punished by the authorities.
The court did offer a 10-month reduction in the sentence for time served.
The army seized power claiming massive voting fraud in the November 2020 election in which its allied party lost many seats, but independent election observers did not detect any major irregularities. Opposition to the takeover sprang up almost immiedately and remains strong, with armed resistance spreading after the military’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests. The verdict could inflame tensions even further.
The cases against Suu Kyi are widely seen as contrived to discredit her and keep her from running in the next election since the constitution bars anyone sent to prison after being convicted of a crime from holding high office or becoming a lawmaker.
Yanghee Lee, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, described the charges as well as the verdict as “bogus,” declaring that any trial held in the country is unfair as the judiciary is subservient to the military-installed government.
Rights groups also deplored the verdict, with Amnesty International calling it “the latest example of the military’s determination to eliminate all opposition and suffocate freedoms in Myanmar.”
But as is typical, China, a neighbor that has maintained friendly ties with Myanmar’s military leaders, declined to criticize the verdict.
Beijing hopes “all parties in Myanmar will bear in mind the long-term interests of the country, narrow differences and carry on the hard-won democratic transition process,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday.
Suu Kyi is widely revered at home for her role in the country’s pro-democracy movement — and was long viewed abroad as an icon of that struggle, epitomized by her 15 years under house arrest.
But since her release in 2010 and return to politics, she has been heavily criticized for the gamble she made: showing deference to the military while ignoring and, at times, even defending rights violations — most notably a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that rights groups have labeled genocide.
While she has disputed allegations that army personnel killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women and she remains immensely popular at home, that stance has tarnished her reputation abroad.
The incitement charge centered on statements posted on the Facebook page of Suu Kyi’s party after she and other party leaders were detained by the military. She was accused of spreading false or inflammatory information that could disturb public order. In addition, she was accused of violating coronavirus restrictions for her appearance at a campaign event ahead of the elections last year.
Government officials could not immediately be reached for more details about Monday’s ruling by a special court, a legacy of British colonial rule that is most often used for political cases.
Suu Kyi’s trials are closed to the media and spectators, and her lawyers, who had been a source of information on the proceedings, were served with gag orders in October forbidding them from releasing information.
Defense lawyers are expected to file appeals in the coming days for Suu Kyi and two colleagues who were also convicted Monday, the legal official who relayed the verdict said. They have argued that Suu Kyi and a co-defendant, former President Win Myint, could not be held responsible for the statements on which the incitment charge was based because they were already in detention when the statements were posted.
February’s seizure of power was met by nonviolent nationwide demonstrations, which security forces quashed with deadly force. They have killed about 1,300 civilians, according to a detailed tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Amid the severe crackdown on peaceful protests, armed resistance has grown in the cities and countryside, to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country is sliding into civil war.
Protest marches on Sunday against the military government called for the release of Suu Kyi and others. An army truck deliberately sped into a march by about 30 young people in Yangon, the country’s biggest city.
A verdict on Suu Kyi’s second count of violating coronavirus restrictions is scheduled for Dec. 14. Other cases against her include the alleged unregistered import and use of walkie-talkies by her security guards; a violation of the Official Secrets Act, in which jailed Australian economist Sean Turnell is a co-defendant; and corruption charges.
The military-appointed election commission has also announced it intends to prosecute Suu Kyi and 15 other senior political figures for alleged fraud in the last election, which could result in her party being dissolved.
The military says its takeover was lawful and not a coup d’etat because the 2008 constitution —implemented under military rule — allows it to take control in certain emergencies. It argues that the 2020 general election contained widespread irregularities and thus constituted such an emergency.
However, the state election commission and the independent poll watching group ANFREL both said there was no evidence of substantial electoral fraud, and the new government so far has not presented convincing proof. Critics assert that the takeover bypassed the legal process for declaring an emergency because two key members who are supposed to take part in those consultations, Win Myint and Suu Kyi, were arrested beforehand.