YANGON — Yangon’s Northern District Court on Friday accepted as evidence a state-owned newspaper’s coverage of the Home Affairs Ministry’s press conference last year on its investigation into the assassination of U Ko Ni.
The prominent Muslim lawyer and legal adviser to the National League for Democracy was gunned down outside Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29 last year. Police have detained four suspects: gunman Kyi Lin and alleged co-conspirators Zeya Phyo, Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun. Their trial began ten months ago.
Police allege that suspect and former military Lieutenant Colonel Aung Win Khaing, who remains at large, was the mastermind of the assassination.
During Friday’s five-hour court hearing, the prosecution presented documents and photos relating to the crime scene and suspects as evidences, including statements from the President’s Office, articles from state-owned papers, and prison record indicating that Kyi Lin and Aung Win Zaw had served prior prison sentences for smuggling Buddha statues.
A defense lawyer for Zeya Phyo objected to the inclusion of an article published by state-owned daily Myanmar Alinn on Feb. 26 about a press conference the day before at which the Home Affairs Ministry presented findings of its investigation into the murder, including the alleged perpetrators and their motives.
However, the trial’s three judges accepted the article as evidence after nearly an hour of private discussion. They said the article contained detailed information of the police force’s investigation and that the information was shared at a press conference by national level authorities overseeing the probe.
Speaking to the media after the hearing, the lawyer for U Ko Ni’s family, U Nay La, said all the information shared at the ministry’s press conference was in line with witness statements in court.
“The court’s acceptance means it affirms that the information revealed at the press conference is true,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The press conference information can be considered a public document because it concerns the public.”
However, defendant Aung Win Zaw’s lawyer, U Aung Khaing, argued that accepting the article did not necessarily mean accepting the information it contains as true.
“The words spoken at the press conference were not official because they were not spoken under oath like witness statements in court,” he said, adding that information in a newspaper could not be assumed to be true regardless of who is quoted, whether the president or a minister or chief minister.
At the Feb. 25 press conference in Yangon, then-police chief Major General Zaw Win said U Ko Ni’s assassination was motivated by a “personal grudge” and named Zeya Phyo as an alleged conspirator for the first time. According to a police statement, Zeya Phyo was a captain in the military’s information department, widely known as its intelligence unit, and quit the post in 2004.
The police chief told the media that the conspirators began planning the assassination in April 2016 because Aung Win Khaing and Zeya Phyo, business partners, were “resentful” of U Ko Ni’s political activities.
He said Aung Win Khaing told Zeya Phyo that he wanted to “eliminate” U Ko Ni and asked for his financial assistance to carry out the murder with the help of a former inmate of his elder brother Aung Win Zaw. Zeya Phyo, he added, handed over 100 million kyats (about $74,000) to Aung Win Khaing in August 2016.
At the same press conference, Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe said it was highly probable that extreme nationalist sentiment also contributed to the suspects’ grudge, based on the investigation and the suspects’ confessions.
Three of the suspects in custody are charged with murder under Article 302 of the Penal Code. Aung Win Tun is charged with harboring a criminal under Article 212.
Zeya Phyo is also charged under Article 67 of the Telecommunications Law with possession of restricted telecommunications equipment and under Article 468 of the Penal Code for forgery of national identity cards.
In addition, two of the suspects, Kyi Lin and Aung Win Zaw, are charged under Article 19 (d) and (f) of the Arms Act for possession and transportation of illegal arms. Kyi Lin is also serving a one-year prison sentence at Insein Prison for illegally crossing the Thai-Myanmar border a few weeks before the murder took place.
Also at Friday’s court hearing, U Tin Maung Swe, a senior officer with the police force’s Crime Investigation Department, provided his account of the investigation. He was the 76th of 80 scheduled witnesses.
The court also decided to hold consecutive hearings on Jan. 25 and 26 to speed up the trial.
Tin Htet Paing is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Yangon. She previously worked at The Irrawaddy as a reporter for three years.