YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was charged on Thursday with breaking the terms of her house arrest and faces up to five years in jail after an American intruder sneaked into her lakeside home, her party said.
Opposition activists denounced her trial, set to begin on Monday, as a ploy by the junta in the former Burma to keep Suu Kyi, 63, sidelined ahead of elections in 2010.
The charges stem from a bizarre incident involving U.S. citizen John William Yettaw, who, according to Myanmar’s state media, claimed to have swum across Inya Lake in Yangon and spent two days in Suu Kyi’s compound earlier this month.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was deeply troubled by the “baseless” new charges against the Nobel Peace laureate and would raise the issue with Myanmar’s ally China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“We call on the Burmese authorities to release her immediately and unconditionally along with her doctor and the more than 2,100 political prisoners currently being held,” Clinton said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern.” Ban believes Suu Kyi “is an essential partner for dialogue in Myanmar’s national reconciliation and calls on the government not to take any further action that could undermine this important process,” U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide election victory in 1990 only to be denied power by the military, “strongly condemned” the charges two weeks before her latest six-year detention was due to expire on May 27.
Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention, most of it held nearly incommunicado at her home in Yangon, the capital of the Southeast Asian country, with the telephone line cut, mail intercepted and visitors restricted.
Myanmar’s ruling generals have in the past ignored calls for her release as they push ahead with a seven-step “roadmap to democracy” leading up to multi-party elections in 2010.
The NLD and Western governments dismiss the “roadmap” and last year’s army-drafted constitution as a cover for the junta to cement its grip on power.
Suu Kyi was charged under the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of the Subversive Elements, which imposes a three-to-five-year jail term if a detainee “violates the restrictions imposed on them.”
Yettaw and two women who live with Suu Kyi were charged with “encouraging a violation of the law,” said Aung Thein, one of Suu Kyi’s lawyers.
Described by state media as a 53-year-old psychology student and a resident of Missouri, Yettaw was also charged with immigration offenses and “illegal swimming” in the lake, which is a restricted zone, Aung Thein said.
The American faces up to five years in prison, he added.
Yettaw was arrested on May 6 as he swam back from Suu Kyi’s home. U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the man was given a hearing at a prison special court on Thursday, with a U.S. consular official allowed in to observe.
U.S. embassy officials were allowed to see Yettaw on Wednesday but spokesman Richard Mei said he revealed little about his motives. It was apparently the second time that Yettaw had tried to meet Suu Kyi at her home.
Suu Kyi’s main lawyer, Kyi Win, said Yettaw was told to leave after his first attempt in late 2008. This time, Yettaw refused.
“He said he was so tired and wanted to rest, but she pleaded with him. Then he slept overnight on the ground floor,” Kyi Win told the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Suu Kyi’s detention in a house inside the prison will renew fears for her health after she was put on an intravenous drip last week for dehydration and low blood pressure.
Her main doctor, Tin Myo Win, was detained last week and is still being held at an undisclosed location.
Aung Thein, the lawyer, was not in court on Thursday but quoted colleagues as saying Suu Kyi looked quite well.
The United Nations has said her continued house arrest is illegal under Myanmar law, which permits detention for five consecutive years before the accused must be freed or face trial.
Suu Kyi lodged an appeal against her detention after it was extended last year in an apparent violation of the law. The junta denied the appeal.
“The regime filed these charges to extend her detention,” said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a pro-democracy group. “It is an act of blackmailing the international community, especially the United States.”
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called the arrest “grave and concerning” and demanded her immediate release.
The 10-member ASEAN, one of the few groups that allows Myanmar as a member, was “concerned” by the latest events, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told Reuters.
“We would like to see positive steps being taken according to the roadmap,” he said. “It’s very important the political process is inclusive.”
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by John O'Callaghan