Trial extended for Missouri man in Myanmar

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 10:55 a.m. CDT

YANGON, Myanmar — An American facing trial for swimming to the home of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was motivated by religious fervor rather than criminal intent and should receive a light sentence, his lawyer said Wednesday.

John W. Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., is being tried along with Suu Kyi, who is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing the American to stay for two days after he secretly entered her lakeside compound.

The case, which was set to conclude Friday, will push into at least next week after a divisional court agreed to hear a defense appeal to readmit three witnesses, one of Suu Kyi's lawyers, Nyan Win, said Wednesday. The court will take up the appeal Friday.

The lower district court earlier disqualified all but one defense witness — legal expert Kyi Win. Those rejected were all members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party: prominent journalist and former political prisoner Win Tin, the party's vice chairman Tin Oo, currently under house arrest, and lawyer Khin Moe Moe.

Both Yettaw and the Nobel Peace laureate could face up to five years in jail.

"I am confident my client could face a lenient sentence. He had no criminal intent, and the only criminal charge he could face would be for lurking house-trespass," said Yettaw's lawyer, Khin Maung Oo. Lurking house-trespass is a legal, English-language term used in Myanmar.

Yettaw is also being tried for violating the immigration law and swimming in Inya Lake.

The lawyer said his client was not a religious fanatic but rather a devout Mormon who "came with a mission" to warn Suu Kyi that "terrorists" were going to assassinate her and then put the blame on the government.

The lawyer said Yettaw was not engaged in a publicity stunt to reap popularity or to tarnish anyone's image.

Suu Kyi likewise has called Yettaw sincere, and rebuked some of her followers who have called him a "fool" and a dupe for getting her into trouble.

"Mr. Yettaw was not acting on instructions by any individual or organization. He is a very religious man, and he acted on his own belief," said the lawyer, when asked about the government's earlier allegation that anti-government forces engineered the intrusion to embarrass the regime.

Khin Maung Oo said his client was certified 10 years ago as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He added that he has experienced several family tragedies, including the death of a son.

Yettaw was wounded while serving in the U.S. military, according to family members. He continues to draw U.S. government disability payments each month.

The trial has drawn condemnation from the international community and Suu Kyi's local supporters, who worry that the junta has found an excuse to keep her detained through elections planned for next year.

"This show trial is the regime's latest political play to ensure she is out of the way for the 2010 elections," said Myanmar activist Khin Omar, of the Forum for Democracy in Burma. Omar said he hoped the Suu Kyi trial will spur the international community, and the United Nations Security Council in particular, to take action against the regime.

"It is not too late for something good to come out of this," she said at a panel discussion in Bangkok on Tuesday night.

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