Two Sentenced to Death for Killing NLD Lawyer U Ko Ni

By San Yamin Aung 15 February 2019

YANGON—Just over two years after the assassination of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni, a Yangon court on Friday sentenced two men to death and jailed two others for the killing.

Delivering its long-awaited verdict, the court sentenced hired gunman Kyi Lin—who shot the lawyer dead in broad daylight on Jan. 29, 2017 outside Yangon International Airport and then killed taxi driver U Ne Win as he tried to apprehend the shooter—to death plus an additional 20 years’ imprisonment for the killings.

Former Lieutenant Aung Win Zaw, an accomplice of Kyi Lin, was also sentenced to death after he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Zeya Phyo, a former captain with the Military Intelligence unit, was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor for causing the disappearance of evidence of an offense. Aung Win Tun was sentenced to a three-year prison term for harboring one of the men.

Aung Win Zaw, who received the death penalty for his role as an accomplice to U Ko Ni’s assassin Kyi Lin, leaves the Yangon Northern District Court on Feb. 15, 2019 after the verdict was announced. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

The alleged mastermind of the killing, former Lieutenant-Colonel Aung Win Khaing, remains at large after fleeing, at least initially, to Naypyitaw, which has Myanmar’s most extensive surveillance network. According to CCTV footage, he was last seen near the city’s National Herbal Park in the first week of February 2017. The Home Affairs Ministry said a warrant has been issued for Aung Win Khaing’s arrest and that his picture has been sent to Interpol and police forces across Southeast Asia.

While leaving the Yangon Northern District Court after the verdict was announced, one of the convicted assassins shouted, “They don’t do anything to those in Naypyitaw. But I have been handed a prison sentence.” It was not clear whom he meant by “those in Naypyitaw”.

U Khin Maung Htay, a plaintiff lawyer, told the media after the verdict that he was not satisfied with the verdict against Zeya Phyo, who previously faced charges of premeditated murder as well as aiding and abetting an offender. He said he would appeal to a higher court.

Zeya Phyo, a convicted conspirator in the murder of U Ko Ni, leaves the Yangon Northern District Court on Feb. 15, 2019 after the verdict was announced. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

The verdict followed a trial that included more than 100 court hearings. The court heard from 72 plaintiff witnesses and 40 defense witnesses.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy last month, prosecution lawyer U Nay La said justice would not be served unless and until all the masterminds are identified.

“The mastermind must be unveiled sometime in the future for the sake of justice. This is what I believe,” he said.

Many have speculated that U Ko Ni was targeted because of his strong criticism of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The constitutional expert and legal adviser to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) had long advocated for constitutional reforms to reduce the military’s dominant political role. He is also believed to have played a key role in advising the NLD to create the position of state counselor for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after the party’s landslide victory in the 2015 elections.

Deputy Director of Yangon High Court U Ye Lwin told the media that carrying out the executions would be the responsibility of the Prisons Department, after the Supreme Court of Myanmar approves the sentences.

Aung Win Tun appears at Yangon’s Northern District Court in February 2018. He was sentenced to a three-year prison term on Feb. 15, 2019 for harboring one of the other men convicted of playing a key role in lawyer U Ko Ni’s killing. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

No death sentences have been carried out in Myanmar since 1988. Currently, there are over 100 people awaiting execution.

U Nay La said in his interview with The Irrawaddy that those who are sentenced to death typically have their sentences commuted to an indefinite jail sentence, then, when another amnesty is granted, their sentence is commuted to 20 years in prison, which is considered life imprisonment in Myanmar. Then, in labor camps, their sentence is reduced again through the parole process, he said.

For this reason, he said, those who are sentenced to death don’t really fear execution “and can eat well and stay at ease in prison as the maximum jail sentence the convicts on death row face is just 10 to 15 years”.