Senator wins release of US prisoner in Myanmar

August 15, 2009 1:18:16 PM PDT
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb won the release Saturday of an American prisoner convicted in Myanmar and sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming secretly to the residence of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the senator's office said. During Webb's visit to Myanmar -- the first by a member of the U.S. Congress in more than a decade -- the senator also secured a rare visit with Suu Kyi, who was convicted along with the American, John Yettaw, and sentenced to 18 more months under house arrest. She has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years.

Yettaw is to be officially deported Sunday, when he will fly with Webb on a military plane to Bangkok, according to a statement from Webb's office.

The 53-year-old from Falcoln, Missouri, has been held in Insein, Myanmar's largest prison, notorious for widespread torture and other abuse of both political prisoners and ordinary criminals.

Yettaw's lawyer has said his client was well-treated, though he fell ill while incarcerated. Before his conviction on Tuesday, he spent a week in a prison hospital for epileptic seizures. He is also said to suffer from asthma and diabetes.

"If it's true, of course I'm extremely happy and we're ecstatic," Betty Yettaw told The Associated Press, referring to reports that her husband would be freed. When reached by phone Saturday morning, she said had yet to receive any official notice.

The junta may have approved the meeting with Suu Kyi and agreed to release Yettaw to quell the torrent of international criticism against Myanmar following the trial and Tuesday's verdict. In July, authorities barred U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from meeting with Suu Kyi during a two-day visit.

Webb, the statement said, requested that Suu Kyi be released during a meeting with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe on Saturday. It was the first time the reclusive general had met with a senior U.S. official.

"It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying the foundations of goodwill and confidence building in the future," Webb was quoted as saying.

On Saturday, the 64-year-old Nobel Peace laureate was driven from her residence to a nearby government guest house for a 40-minute meeting with Webb, then reporters saw her taken home by car.

Webb, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, described the meeting as "an opportunity ... to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world."

The senator, who arrived in Myanmar's capital of Naypyitaw on Friday, was scheduled to address reporters in Yangon on Sunday.

The visit -- particularly the meetings with senior officials and Suu Kyi -- was unusual because of the poor state of relations between Myanmar, also known as Burma, and the U.S. Many critics said it was bad timing for outreach -- only days after the junta flouted international appeals that Suu Kyi be cleared of the latest charges. It also drew criticism from activists who say it confers legitimacy on a brutal regime.

While Washington has traditionally been Myanmar's strongest critic, applying political and economic sanctions against the junta, President Barack Obama's new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, recently said the administration is interested in easing its policy of isolation. Webb has said that "affirmative engagement" could bring the most change to Myanmar, concerning those who think a hard line is the best approach.

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations suggested Webb's visit could help persuade the junta to free Suu Kyi.

"If the Americans can get the generals to see that their country's interest is reflected in taking interest in reconciliation, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and holding free and fair elections, that would be very helpful." John Sawyers told BBC Radio 4 on Saturday.

But in a letter to Webb, dissident groups warned the junta would use the senator's trip for its own ends.

"We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," the letter said. Daw is a term of respect for older women in Myanmar.

Possibly reflecting a similar wariness, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said the party "has no interest in Jim Webb because he is not known to have any interest in Myanmar affairs." He did not elaborate.

Official media, however, appeared to herald Webb's arrival. The nightly broadcast led with the visit, reporting that the senator met with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein on Friday, and returned to the subject several times during the night.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly.

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