Australian academic pleads not guilty in trial with ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, official says

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File photo: Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University, speaks during an interview in Sydney (AP)
File photo: Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University, speaks during an interview in Sydney (AP)

An Australian academic who is being tried with the ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on charges of violating the country’s official secrets law has testified in court for the first time.

Sean Turnell, an economist at Sydney’s Macquarie University who had served as an economic adviser to Ms Suu Kyi, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied all allegations against him.

Prof Turnell was arrested last year, just days after the democratically-elected government of Ms Suu Kyi was ousted by Myanmar’s army on 1 February.

The Australian academic faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

Prof Turnell is being held in the main prison in Naypyitaw, the capital, as is Ms Suu Kyi.

A legal official familiar with Thursday’s closed court proceedings said Prof Turnell denied the allegations against him and pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance.

There was not enough detail available about Prof Turnell’s testimony in court as his lawyers have been barred from talking about the case.

However, the legal official who wanted to remain anonymous because of the restrictions around the case, said the professor and other co-defendants appeared to be in “good health”.

The exact details of Prof Turnell’s offence have also not been made public. But Myanmar’s state television had quoted an official statement last year as saying that Prof Turnell had access to “secret state financial information” and had tried to flee the country.

Meanwhile, Australia’s deputy prime minister Richard Marles said he was “concerned about the level of access that is available to those providing consular services to” Prof Turnell.

He told the media on Friday: “We expect that there is transparency, that there is an application of justice and an application of procedural fairness. And we are concerned about all of those in its application to Professor Turnell.”

“It’s trumped-up charges by an authoritarian regime that wants to use Sean to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s what it’s all about,” economist Tim Harcourt, who is also a friend of Prof Turnell, told ABC News. “He’s pleaded not guilty because he’s not guilty.”

“All he did was advise the Myanmar government on things they should do with their economy … providing good advice to improve the living standards of ordinary citizens.”

Additional reporting by agencies