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Lake Swimmer Could Cost Suu Kyi Her Freedom

Burma pro-democracy leader was officially coming up for release but faces new sentence after man swam lake to her villa

Maev Kennedy and agencies

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. The south east Asian nation's military rulers have charged Aung San Suu Kyi with breaching the terms of her house arrest over an incident in which a US man swam across a lake and entered her home. (AFP/File)

Hopes for the release of Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi were dashed today with the announcement she has been arrested for violating the terms of her house arrest and could face up to five years' confinement after a bizarre intrusion by an American who swam across a lake to her home.

The news was greeted with anguish by supporters of the increasingly frail Nobel peace laureate: her most recent six-year term of house arrest was due to end in less than two weeks.

International reaction was swift, and appalled.

The UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, who included her in his book on courage, said: "I am deeply disturbed that Aung San Suu Kyi may be charged with breaching the terms of her detention. The Burmese regime is clearly intent on finding any pretext, no matter how tenuous, to extend her unlawful detention.

"The real injustice, the real illegality, is that she is still detained in the first place. If the 2010 elections are to have any semblance of credibility, she and all political prisoners must be freed to participate. Only then will Burma be set on the road to real democracy, stability and prosperity."

Anna Roberts, of the Burma UK campaign, said: "Clearly the regime is looking for any excuse to keep her detained and keep her out of the way ahead of next year's election. The UN and [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] need to send high-level envoys to Burma."

Supporters fear the Burmese authorities will prolong her detention indefinitely, exploiting the fact that John William Yettaw - a middle-aged American described by one of her staff as "a nutty fellow" - was allowed to stay for two days at the villa after pleading exhaustion from his mile-long swim.

Suu Kyi's chief lawyer, Kyi Win, said: "Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems. He's a fool."


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There was bemusement that Yettaw was not picked up immediately by the Burmese authorities, who keep close watch on the lakeside outside her compound. He turned up at her compound on 3 May and was arrested after swimming back two days later.

Today a police motorcade took Suu Kyi and two women who live with her from the compound to the notorious Insein prison, which holds both political prisoners and common criminals, and where human rights groups say torture is common and conditions are appalling.

Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the last 20 years under house arrest, but the present term was due to end on 27 May. Her trial, for violating the terms of her detention by allowing an outsider to stay, is scheduled to start on Monday. Members of her party, the National League for Democracy, have in the past been jailed for violating the law - permission is never granted for a foreigner to stay. The regime has also charged Suu Kyi's two helpers - Khin Khin Win, 65, and her daughter Win Ma Ma, 41, who have lived with her since her current detention began in 2003.

Suu Kyi's health has been causing increasing concern to her supporters. Last week, a doctor was allowed to visit and treated her for dehydration and low blood pressure with an intravenous drip.

Her husband, the academic Michael Aris, died of cancer in Oxfordshire in 1999, three years after their last meeting. She could not visit him because the junta would not give assurances she could return to Burma, and he was refused permission to visit her.

Yettaw has been charged with entering a restricted zone and breaking immigration laws. A US consular official met him for half an hour yesterday in the presence of police and intelligence officers.

"He would not go into any details about his stay in the house," said Richard Mei, a US embassy spokesman. "He seems to have a very strong religious reason for his ­actions."

According to the opposition magazine Irrawaddy, Yettaw had met Burmese groups in Thailand and told them he was writing a faith-based book on heroism.

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