At the 42nd hearing in a lengthy trial centred on the assassination of prominent legal expert Ko Ni, lawyers for three of the four defendants detained in connection with the killing argued that their clients should be released because the prosecution had failed to present compelling evidence implicating them.
Lawyers for suspected co-conspirators Aung Win Zaw, Aung Win Tun and Zeyar Phyo told Yangon’s Northern District Court that the prosecution did not meet the burden of proof required to continue a case against them. The three men are accused of various degrees of involvement in Ko Ni’s killing.
Ko Ni was gunned down in broad daylight at Yangon International Airport on 29 January 2017. The alleged assassin, Kyi Lin, was arrested at the airport shortly after the murder, in large part thanks to a vigilante cohort that chased him down including 42-year-old Nay Win, who was also shot dead in pursuit of the gunman.
Aung Khine, a lawyer for Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun, told the court on Friday that CCTV footage showing Aung Win Zaw at the airport on 29 January of last year was not enough to tie him to the killing.
“Will they be imprisoned based only on a CCTV recording?” he asked the court, adding that “there is no evidence that Aung Win Zaw conspired with Kyi Lin. I want to argue for the release of Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun before any decision regarding [whether or not] to continue testimony.”
The court has already heard testimony from more than 70 people as the case enters its second year.
Another lawyer, for Zeyar Phyo, also argued that no evidence was provided to back the prosecution’s claim that he had given money to Aung Win Khine — the alleged mastermind of the assassination who remains a fugitive and is accused of then paying off Kyi Lin to carry out the killing.
“I also want to argue for the release of Zeyar Phyo,” the lawyer said.
A lawyer for the prosecution, Nay La, confirmed to reporters after Friday’s hearing that the defence’s strategy was to get charges dropped against three of the four men on trial, framing Kyi Lin as a lone actor in the killing.
“I don’t agree that it must be decided whether to continue the case or not with only direct witnesses or evidence,” said Nay La.
The next trial is scheduled for 9 February, at which the judges will decide whether the case against the three men will proceed.
They are being tried under section 34 of the Penal Code, a charge brought against alleged co-conspirators of a crime that could render them liable to the same criminal penalties faced by Kyi Lin. He is facing charges of murder and a provision under Burma’s Arms Act.
There was a small but notable contingent of nationalists supporting the defendants outside the courthouse before Friday’s hearing, including a man whose T-shirt was imprinted with the words “Htamin wa aung sa htar.” The Burmese phrase roughly translates to “Eat while you can,” and can be either genial or menacing, depending on the tone and context. He gave identical T-shirts to the four defendants appearing in court on Friday, breathing new life into a controversy that began last month.
According to lawyer for the prosecution Robert San Aung, the defendant Aung Win Zaw used the phrase in a threatening manner directed at journalists and attorneys for the prosecution at a previous hearing on 12 January.
Aung Win Zaw denies that he threatened the lawyers and journalists in attendance at the hearing last month, however. He has said he intends to sue Robert San Aung under section 8(f) of the 2017 Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, which covers unlawfully interfering “with a citizen’s personal or family matters or act[ing] in any way to slander or harm their reputation.”
While the defendant’s words may be in dispute, support for the man most likely to see time behind bars was unequivocal from the half-dozen nationalists gathered outside the courthouse on Friday.
“He [Kyi Lin] did what he is supposed to do. We came here to pay our respects to him. We don’t have other intentions,” said Myat Phone Mo.
Since Ko Ni’s assassination, speculation has swirled about the motive for the killing, with a fringe segment of the Buddhist nationalist movement praising Kyi Lin for taking the life of the country’s most influential Muslim legal scholar.
Lawyer for the prosecution Khin Maung Htay said the message and antics of supporters such as Myat Phone Mo posed a threat to journalists and prosecuting attorneys, and he criticised police for allowing it.
“The police force did not prevent them,” he said.