Video: Protests in Myanmar over Suu Kyi trial

updated 5/18/2009 3:17:54 AM ET 2009-05-18T07:17:54

Riot police behind barbed wire barricades ringed a notorious prison where pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial Monday for allegedly harboring an American man who swam to her lakeside home.

The tight security came as activist groups, which spearheaded an uprising against Myanmar's military rulers in 2007, called for peaceful protest rallies in front of Yangon's Insein prison until Suu Kyi is freed. More than 100 Suu Kyi supporters were able to pass through one of the barricades.

Authorities said the trial began about 10:30 a.m. (11 p.m. EDT Sunday) but no other information was immediately available.

American also on trial
The ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy as well as an Australian diplomat were barred from entering the prison, but the U.S. consul was allowed into the prison compound since a U.S. citizen, John William Yettaw, also was on trial along with Suu Kyi.

Yettaw's motives for entering Suu Kyi's compound earlier this month remain unclear and her supporters have expressed anger at him for getting the Nobel Peace laureate into trouble. Suu Kyi's lawyers have said he was not invited to her residence, and that she told him to leave.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Drake Wiesert said it was unclear if the consul would be allowed to attend the court proceedings, or whether Yettaw was represented by a lawyer.

On the eve of Suu Kyi's trial, her defense lawyer said she was innocent of the charges, which could put her into prison for up to five years.

"We call all political forces for Free Aung San Suu Kyi to mobilize all over Burma, by holding praying sessions in homes, places of worship ... and holding silent, peaceful rallies in front of Insein prison," said a statement from three activist groups. Burma is the old name for Myanmar and preferred by the military regime's opponents.

The groups included an organization of Buddhist monks, who were at the forefront of the 2007 protests, which were brutally crushed by the regime.

Roads blocked
Security forces blocked all roads leading to the prison as several hundred riot police, many armed with guns, batons and shields, guarded the perimeter of Insein, where the regime has for years incarcerated political prisoners.

More than 100 members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy were able to pass through the first ring of barricades around the prison but not the inner one. One young protester was seen being taken away by police.

The group was led by Win Tin, a leading member of the league who was freed last September after 19 years of imprisonment for exposing human rights violations in Myanmar's prisons.

"After listening to the sequence of events, it is very clear that there is no breach of conditions of her restrictions," lawyer Kyi Win said after visiting the Noble Peace Prize laureate in the prison over the weekend.

Suu Kyi, 63, was charged Thursday with violating the terms of her detention by sheltering Yettaw, reportedly a Vietnam War-era veteran, who will also be tried along with two female assistants who have been with Suu Kyi since 2003. The four were to be tried together.

Suu Kyi had been scheduled to be freed May 27 after six consecutive years of house arrest, but the ruling junta was widely expected to once again extend her detention period. International lawyers say this would have been illegal under Myanmar's own laws.

The latest charges are widely seen as a pretext for the government to keep Suu Kyi detained past elections it has scheduled for next year as the culmination of a "roadmap to democracy" which has been criticized as a fig leaf for continued military control.

Myanmar has been ruled by its military since 1962. The regime lost democratic elections in 1990 but did not honor the landslide victory of Suu Kyi's party.

In Monday's court session, Kyi Win said Suu Kyi's defense team will ask for an open trial and may also request bail. The prosecution is expected to call 22 witnesses during the trial.

Kyi Win said Suu Kyi was ready to tell her side of the story. "She has always been ready to tell the truth," he said.

Her latest arrest has sparked a storm of international appeals to Myanmar's government to free her and to restore democracy in the country. Suu Kyi has been detained for more than 13 of the last 19 years.

In unusually sharp criticism from a Southeast Asian nation, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said Sunday that his government was "deeply troubled and outraged" over the "trumped-up charges" against Suu Kyi.

"We urge the government of Myanmar to resolve the matter speedily and to release Aung San Suu Kyi immediately and unconditionally," he said.

Normally, members of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, refrain from criticizing one another.

Details unclear
Exactly why Yettaw, of Falcon, Missouri, swam across the lake to see Suu Kyi remains unclear. After leaving, he was fished out of the lake by authorities about 1.2 miles from her residence and taken into custody.

"I cannot tell you what he was thinking when he made those swims or whether or not he considered the consequences for anyone but himself," said Yettaw's stepson Paul in an e-mail to The Associated Press Monday.

"He knew he could be caught and arrested, though I am very sure it never occurred to him that Suu Kyi or her companions could also suffer from his choices," he said.

His wife, Betty Yettaw, earlier described her husband as eccentric but peace-loving and "not political at all."

According to his ex-wife Yvonne Yettaw, he said he went to Asia to work on a psychology paper about forgiveness.

She said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a head wound during his military service.

His former wife said Yettaw belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, adding it was unlikely he was in Southeast Asia to proselytize for the church or convert the Nobel laureate.

"As a family, we are very sorry for any additional problems that John's action may have caused Suu Kyi and her companions," his stepson said.

More on Myanmar   |  Aung San Suu Kyi

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