A court in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) has ordered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to spend a further 18 months under house arrest, dashing hopes of clemency. The verdict, which was commuted from a sentence of three years in jail, flies in the face of international pressure aimed at securing her release.
Ms. Suu Kyi, who has spent the past six years confined to her lakeside house, was convicted Tuesday of breaching the terms of her detention after John Yettaw, an American tourist, swam across the lake and stayed two nights.
The court sentenced Mr. Yettaw, who was initially accused of being a spy, to seven years' imprisonment and hard labor. Yettaw, a Vietnam War veteran from Falcon, Mo., told the court that he had dreamed that her life was in danger and went to warn her.
The verdict against Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), wasn't unexpected. By convicting her of a crime and extending her detention, Burma's rulers can ensure that she doesn't campaign in national elections expected next year – the first held since a 1990 poll that the NLD won and the military later annulled. Suu Kyi was detained in 1989 and has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest.
'Pressure didn't make any difference'
A drumbeat of diplomacy has grown in recent months, as it became clear that the regime intended to use Yettaw's visit to prolong Suu Kyi's detention. Last month, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Burma and urged its reclusive leader Gen. Than Shwe to spare her.
Some of Burma's neighbors in Southeast Asia have also expressed frustration at its intransigence and the diplomatic friction it causes with their Western allies.
"We're disappointed that [the regime] could defy the calls of the international community. It's clear that the pressure didn't make any difference," says Soe Aung, a spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma in Bangkok.
Defense witnesses unable to testify
Suu Kyi's supporters say the trial was flawed, as defense lawyers were unable to meet privately with their client and most of their witnesses weren't permitted to testify.
Security forces maintained a heavy presence Tuesday outside the prison where the trial was held to deter any protests.
"The outcome of this trial has never been in doubt. The real question is how the international community will react," said Jared Genser, a US lawyer and counsel to Suu Kyi, in a statement issued in Washington.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was "saddened and angered" by the verdict, the BBC reported. The Obama administration has previously dismissed the trial as a sham. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the sentence "brutal and unjust."
Sweden, in a statement issued on behalf of the European Union, of which it is president, stated that the EU would consider "additional targeted measures against those responsible for the verdict" and was ready to tighten existing measures, including financial sanctions.
Will Suu Kyi's party boycott election?
Western powers may already be resigned to the fact that Suu Kyi won't take part in next year's planned elections, a move that could split the NLD on whether or not to join the process, says Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese analyst in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The military wants to engineer a transition to civilian rule that protects them and fears a challenge from Suu Kyi, who remains a unifying symbol for Burma's disgruntled masses.
"It's in the interest of the international community to see some kind of civilian government in Burma in the next few years," he says.
Some activists have argued that the UN should investigate Burma for crimes against humanity, on the basis of repeated accounts of systematic abuses by Burmese troops in restless eastern provinces. Such an inquiry would require the approval of members of the UN Security Council.