BANGKOK -- A court in Myanmar ruled Friday that state prosecutors have submitted enough evidence for the trial of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi on an election fraud charge to continue, a legal official familiar with the case said.
The army seized power from Suu Kyi’s elected government in February last year, saying there was widespread fraud in the 2020 general election. Its allegation was not corroborated by independent election observers.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the election by a landslide, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party suffered huge losses.
A conviction in the election fraud case could lead to Suu Kyi’s party being dissolved and unable to participate in a new election the military has promised will take place in 2023.
Suu Kyi has already been sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted on charges of illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition and a corruption charge.
The cases are widely seen as having been concocted by the military to discredit 76-year-old Suu Kyi and keep her from actively returning to politics.
A court in the capital, Naypyitaw, is hearing multiple charges against Suu Kyi and several colleagues, including the electoral fraud charge. The penalty for the offense is three years’ imprisonment. Former President Win Myint and former Minister of the Union Government Office Min Thu are co-defendants in the case.
The charge was filed last November by the state Election Commission, whose members were appointed by the military government. The military dismissed the commission’s previous members, who had declared there were no major irregularities in the election.
The new commission accused the defendants, including its own former chairman, of being “involved in electoral processes, election fraud and lawless actions.”
A legal official familiar with Friday’s proceedings said the defendants pleaded not guilty after the court approved the indictments against them and allowed the trial to continue.
The court’s decision on Friday was confirmed by a legal official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information. All of Suu Kyi’s trials are closed to the media and the public and Suu Kyi’s lawyers have been barred by a gag order from providing details of the proceedings.
According to Myanmar law, a judge can order an end to a trial after the prosecution has presented its case if it doesn’t have merit. This first phase is roughly similar to a grand jury process in Anglo-American law. If the judge finds the prosecution case credible, the trial continues into a second phase in which the defense presents its case and a verdict is delivered.
The legal official said the defense lawyers requested that three prosecution witnesses be recalled for re-examination before the court starts to hear the defense arguments.
After last year’s military takeover, the newly appointed head of the Election Commission said his agency would consider dissolving Suu Kyi’s former governing party for alleged involvement in electoral fraud. He said the party had worked illegally with the government to give itself an advantage at the polls.
The commission also warned that Suu Kyi’s party would be disbanded if the party did not submit its financial accounts and expenses for inspection. The commission announced it was examining political parties to see whether they were maintaining and using party funds in accordance with the law.. It has already examined 83 of the 92 political parties.
Khin Maung Oo, a member of the commission, said in April that the examination of the NLD’s books would be delayed because some of the party’s officers had been arrested and others had gone into hiding.
Officials of Suu Kyi’s party who have escaped arrest said in a statement last year that the party does not recognize the military-appointed election commission and its statements are illegal.
Suu Kyi is also being tried on a charge of violating the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, and 11 counts of corruption, which carry a maximum sentence of 15 years each.
The military’s takeover prompted nationwide peaceful protests that security forces quashed with lethal force, triggering armed resistance that some U.N. experts now characterize as civil war.