A Myanmar court on Friday handed down death sentences to two men found guilty of assassinating Ko Ni, a prominent human rights attorney and advisor to the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while two others who assisted in the murder plot received prison terms after a long and tortuous trial.
A panel of judges at the Northern Yangon District Court found gunman Kyi Lin guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to death by hanging, lawyers involved in the case said.
He also received an additional 23 years and hard labor for the death of taxi driver Nay Win, who chased him after Ko Ni was gunned down, and for illegal weapons possession, they said.
Accomplice Aung Win Zaw, a former military officer, was also sentenced to death for helping to plan the premeditated killing that took place about eight months after Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power.
Former military officer Zayar Phyo and Aung Win Tun, two other defendants who helped carry out the crime, also received prison terms.
The court sentenced Zayar Phyo to five years in prison with hard labor for falsifying evidence, and handed Aung Win Tun a three-year term for harboring an offender.
Zayar Phyo was initially charged with masterminding the contract killing of Ko Ni, but the court decided that attorneys for the plaintiff failed to prove directly or indirectly that he was the architect of the plan and hired the hitman.
Zayar Phyo’s attorney, Nay La, who was also a confidante of Ko Ni, said the verdict was the product of a flawed legal system.
“As I am part of the legal team working on the case, we believe there are flaws in our legal system,” he said. “We consulted with the district-level legal officer and the Office of the Attorney General. The district legal officer agreed with us that the system is flawed.”
Former Lieutenant Colonel Aung Win Khine (also known as Khaing), brother of Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun, was accused of premeditated murder for allegedly masterminding the crime, though he remains at large.
The court convicted Kyi Lin, Aung Win Zaw, and Aung Win Tun as initially charged during the trial that lasted for nearly two years and included more than 100 court hearings. But the original charge of premeditated murder for Zayar Phyo was unexpectedly downgraded.
“With regards to Zayar Phyo, he was convicted for violating Section 212(1) of the Penal Code instead of his initial charges,” said plaintiff’s attorney Khin Maung Htay. “We will proceed in pursuing justice for this decision.”
Ko Ni, a 63-year old Muslim attorney who served as a legal advisor to the NLD, was shot point-black in the back of the head while he held his grandson at Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29, 2017 after returning from a work trip to Indonesia.
Observers and analysts have speculated that Ko Ni was targeted for being an outspoken critic of anti-Muslim attitudes held by Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists and the country’s powerful military, and for advising the NLD on how to circumvent articles in the country’s military-drafted constitution that prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Chance to appeal
Gunman Kyi Lin repeatedly testified in the court hearings that he was hired by someone named Myint Swe, but the court decided that his testimony was a fabrication and that Aung Win Zaw had masterminded the murder, sources said.
Supporters of Kyi Lin and Aung Win Zaw bemoaned the verdicts, while those who stood with Ko Ni’s family complained that the five-year sentence for Zayar Phyo was too lenient.
The two men who were handed death sentences can file appeals within a week, while the others can file appeals of their prison terms within 60 days.
Kyaw Kyaw Htike, one of the defendants’ attorneys, said he had no information on appealing the verdict, and that appeals depend on the wishes of the defendant’s families.
“There are other legal offices involved in this case,” he said. “It is possible they will review and evaluate today’s verdict, and it depends on the decision of the defendants.”
Ko Ni’s son Thant Zin Oo declined to comment in detail on the verdict.
“I don’t want to make any comments with regards to the court verdict today,” he said. “The defendants still have the chance to appeal the decision, so we should wait and see if they decide to submit appeals.”
The media were not allowed to interview the convicts, who were immediately taken to a vehicle and transported back to Insein Prison on the outskirts of Yangon.
Myanmar still sentences convicts to death by hanging, but is not known to have conducted any executions since the late 1980s.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win and Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.