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Myanmar's Suu Kyi defends self after American's visit

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 | 4:55 p.m. CDT; updated 5:38 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 26, 2009

YANGON, Myanmar — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, isolated under house arrest since 2003, insisted in court Tuesday that she did not violate the law by sheltering an uninvited Missouri man at her home.

The icon of Myanmar's democracy movement looked pale and weak as she answered judges' questions for less than half an hour, giving terse replies about the incident earlier this month that could lead to her being sent to prison for five years.

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Spectators sitting about 40 feet from Suu Kyi had to strain to hear her address the bench over the buzz of half a dozen fans whirring overhead in the stuffy courtroom. The gist of the Q-and-A session became known to the spectators only when the judge dictated it to a court recorder who was typing up proceedings at his side.

The charge that Suu Kyi violated the terms of her detention is widely considered a pretext to keep her detained ahead of elections the military government has planned for next year. She pleaded not guilty Friday.

Myanmar's courts operate under the influence of the military and almost always deal harshly with political dissidents.

Suu Kyi's side does not contest the basic facts of the case: She acknowledges that she allowed John W. Yettaw, 53, to stay at her home for two days earlier this month after he swam across a lake to enter her house uninvited and then said he was too tired and ill to leave immediately.

Suu Kyi, through her lawyers, has said that this does not mean she violated a ban on her receiving visitors, because it was the responsibility of the security forces to keep intruders away from her home.

The 63-year-old Nobel Peace laureate said she did not turn Yettaw in because she did not want to get him or the guards around her house into trouble. Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., was arrested after he swam away. When he pleaded not guilty, he explained he had a dream that Suu Kyi would be assassinated and he had gone to warn her.

Suu Kyi offered few if any insights when she spoke Tuesday after submitting a 1 ½-page statement about the incident to the court. She gave brief, carefully phrased answers to the judges' queries.

When asked whether she accepted books and gifts from Yettaw — several items were found at her home and could constitute a violation of the terms of her detention — she replied: "I don't know if Mr. Yettaw had forgotten to take them or left them. Only Mr. Yettaw will know."

She is not expected to testify again, although she will continue to be present for the rest of the trial. Two women assistants who live with her, and Yettaw, also have pleaded not guilty to the same charge.

Diplomats and reporters, including one for The Associated Press, were allowed into the courtroom for Tuesday's session, the second time during the trial that access has been granted.

When she walked into the court room, Suu Kyi was wearing a light purple short-sleeve traditional Myanmar jacket and a dark purple cotton sarong, and carried a clutch bag.

Most of the courtroom stood in silence. As she walked past the diplomats and reporters, she said: "It's difficult to talk this way. Thank you very much for your presence."

The spectators remained standing even after a visibly irritated plainclothes policeman told everyone, "You can sit now." Only when she took her seat to talk with her lawyer did they sit down again. Six policewomen and one female prison guard sat behind her.

Later, as four policewomen escorted her from the courtroom, she spoke again to the spectators. "Thank you for your concern and support. It is always good to see people from the outside world," she said.

"Given her ordeal, she is in reasonably good shape," said British Ambassador Mark Canning.

Suu Kyi rose to prominence as a leader of a 1988 democracy uprising that the military brutally suppressed. Her party won a general election in 1990 but the military, which has ruled the country since 1962, has never accepted the results.

Suu Kyi's latest round of house arrest — extended every year since 2003 — was supposed to expire this week, and a top police official told diplomats Tuesday that the government had considered releasing her on "humanitarian grounds."

But the junta reversed that decision when the "unexpected incident of the intrusion of the American happened," Brig. Gen. Myint Thein said. The regime's critics, however, have assumed that the junta was looking for a pretext to keep her locked up.

Despite Myint Thein's explanation to diplomats, he and another senior police officer visited Suu Kyi at her prison cottage Tuesday to cancel the house arrest order. Her lawyer, Nyan Win, has said the law requires such a move when a suspect is charged with a crime.

"I don't know whether we should be happy or sad," Nyan Win said. "At present, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in prison." The Nobel Peace laureate has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial, most at her dilapidated Yangon home. 'Daw' is a term of respect used for older women.

 


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