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The junta trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader opened on Monday, with her supporters denouncing the charges against her as “politically motivated” and “absurd.”
Ms Suu Kyi, 75, has been in detention since military generals seized power on February 1 and then levelled a raft of eclectic charges that could see her jailed for more than a decade.
On Monday, her lawyers defended the Nobel Peace Laureate against accusations of illegally importing walkie-talkies and failing to comply with coronavirus restrictions during last November’s elections, which her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in a landslide.
On Tuesday, she will face the more serious charges of sedition, alongside Win Myint, the former president, and another senior member of the NLD.
A further trial date has still to be set for new allegations, introduced only last week, of violating a colonial-era state secrets law and corruption.
Ms Suu Kyi has been accused of taking more than half a million dollars and about 10 kilos of gold in bribes – a charge that carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, denounced the “bogus” charges as “politically motivated by the intention to nullify her landslide election victory” and said there was “little likelihood she will receive a fair trial” as the junta intended to keep her permanently out of power.
He added: “This trial is clearly the opening salvo in an overall strategy to neuter Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party as a force that can challenge military rule in the future.”
A closely guarded court has been created especially for the trial in the capital Naypyidaw.
Fuelling fears of an unfair trial, Ms Suu Kyi has only been allowed to meet her lawyers twice over the past four months. They have said they expect the trial to be over by July 26.
Khin Maung Zaw, a leading member of her legal team, last week dismissed the charges against her "absurd".
On Monday, he told the Telegraph that he believed in her innocence and suing her for corruption was "baseless nonsense."
He added: "Prosecuting Aung San Suu Kyi for corruption is like spitting towards the sky...I'm working as her lawyer because I believe she has not committed any of the charges against her."
Min Min Soe, another member of the legal team, said Ms Suu Kyi was taking medication for toothache but that she "paid keen attention" throughout the hearing.
Democratic governments around the world, including the UK and United States, have repeatedly called for Myanmar’s civilian rulers to be restored to power and the election results respected.
February’s coup unleashed chaos in the Southeast Asian nation, triggering mass protests and bringing its economy and basic services like education and healthcare to the brink of collapse, making the country more vulnerable to another Covid-19 surge.
On Monday, state media said Dr Htar Htar Lin, the former head of Myanmar's Covid-19 immunisation programme, had been arrested and now faces charges of high treason for colluding with opponents of the military authorities who have formed a shadow “National Unity Government (NUG).”
The medical profession has been spearheading a Civil Disobedience Movement of key workers who are striking to avoid serving the junta. The military has responded by relentlessly targeting medics – hunting down opponents, raiding clinics and attacking ambulances.
The US-based Physicians for Human Rights group condemned the latest arrests of high-profile doctors and the targeting of their families.
“Dr Htar Htar Lin’s arbitrary arrest is yet another sign that the military junta will stop at nothing in its war against Myanmar’s health workers,” said Jennifer Leigh, an epidemiologist and PHR researcher.
Some 373 new cases of Covid-19 were reported on Sunday - the highest since February 3, just before testing collapsed in the wake of the coup.
“Myanmar’s Covid-19 response and vaccine rollout have all but collapsed due to the military’s egregious attacks on health workers and facilities across the country,” said Sandra Mon, an epidemiologist from Myanmar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights.
“The human rights emergency of the coup is morphing into a public health disaster.”