YANGON (Reuters) - A court in army-ruled Myanmar sentenced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months in detention on Tuesday, a verdict that drew condemnation abroad and will keep her off the political stage through next year’s elections.
The court handed down a three-year prison term for violation of an internal security law. But that was immediately halved on the orders of the military government, which said the 64-year-old Nobel peace laureate could serve the time in her Yangon home.
Myanmar’s home minister, Major-General Muang Oo, told the court moments after the verdict it had taken into account that Suu Kyi was the daughter of Myanmar independence hero Aung San, and “the need to preserve community peace and tranquility” as the country prepares for multiparty elections.
The verdict drew criticism from leaders around the world. Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it “monstrous.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it was “brutal and unjust.
The U.S. State Department spokesman called the charges against Suu Kyi “spurious” and President Barack Obama said the conviction violates universal principles of human rights. Obama also called for Suu Kyi’s immediate release.
The 27-country European Union is preparing sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma, that include restricting trade with state-owned firms and barring top junta officials from entering the bloc, Sweden said.
Sarkozy said the measures “should particularly target the resources it profits directly from — wood and ruby mining.”
The U.N. Security Council met on Tuesday to discuss the verdict, with Western nations pressing for a statement condemning it. But the meeting was adjourned until Wednesday after China and other members asked to consult their capitals.
“She should not have been tried, and she should not have been convicted,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Myanmar authorities should begin an immediate dialogue with the opposition, Clinton told reporters on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Otherwise the elections they have scheduled will have absolutely no legitimacy.”
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called the conviction a “thinly veiled effort by the Burmese government to keep her on the sidelines for elections next year.”
“They are afraid of a 64-year-old woman who probably weighs barely 100 pounds. But what she represents is an idea.”
Crowley said this latest development would have a negative impact on a review the U.S. government is now conducting of its policy toward Myanmar.
Critics say the case was fabricated by the military to keep the charismatic Suu Kyi out of circulation ahead of the polls.
The charges stemmed from a mysterious incident in which an American, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside home in May and stayed there uninvited for two days. That breached the terms of her house arrest and broke a security law protecting the state from “subversive elements.”
Yettaw, taken to hospital last week after suffering seizures, was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor in a parallel trial on three charges, including immigration offenses
and “swimming in a non-swimming area.”
His lawyer said the American suffered from epilepsy, diabetes and heart trouble. Yettaw, a Mormon, told the court God had sent him to warn Suu Kyi she would be assassinated by “terrorists.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the credibility of elections next year would remain in doubt, unless the junta freed Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
The reduced sentence for Suu Kyi, who has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention, may have been an attempt to appease Myanmar’s friends and neighbors — China, India and Thailand, in particular — whose trade has propped up a state crippled by international sanctions.
“The regime is calculating that by commuting it down to one-and-a-half years and by allowing her to serve in her home rather than in prison, most Asian states will be prepared to go along with that,” said Ian Holliday, a Myanmar analyst from the University of Hong Kong.
Reflecting that assessment, Singapore’s foreign ministry said it was “disappointed” by the guilty verdict.
“We are, however, happy that the Myanmar Government has exercised its sovereign prerogative to grant amnesty for half her sentence and that she will be placed under house arrest rather than imprisoned.”
India urged Myanmar to speed political reforms, saying it hoped the issue of release of political prisoners would be addressed as part of that process.
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Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong, by Partick Worsnip at the UN and by other Reuters bureaux; Writing by Martin Petty, editing by Anthony Boadle