YANGON — A defense lawyer for the accused gunman in the shooting death of prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni said his client was blackmailed into carrying out the murder and didn’t know the mastermind behind the assassination.
U Kyaw Kyaw Htike, a defense lawyer for accused gunman Kyi Lin, told the media after a hearing at Yangon’s Northern District Court on Friday that an individual named Myint Swe had threatened his client with harm if he did not kill U Ko Ni, the late legal adviser to the ruling National League for Democracy.
“If he didn’t do it, who would take responsibility for his and his family’s survival?” U Kyaw Kyaw Htike asked, adding that Kyi Lin had never met U Ko Ni before the incident and had no personal motive for murdering him.
U Ko Ni was gunned down outside Yangon International Airport on Jan. 29 last year. Taxi driver U Nay Win was also fatally shot as he tried to apprehend the assassin.
Police have detained four suspects: Kyi Lin and alleged co-conspirators Zeya Phyo, Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun. Police allege that former military Lieutenant-Colonel Aung Win Khaing, who remains at large, masterminded the assassination.
At Friday’s hearing, prosecutors presented judges with their closing arguments, capping 10 months of witness testimony in the murder trial of the four accused.
Defense lawyer U Aung Khaing, who represents Aung Win Zaw and Aung Win Tun, told the judges that the prosecution had failed to present any evidence connecting his clients and the gunman.
While airport CCTV footage showed that Aung Win Zaw was present at the airport before the murder took place, no one had been able to show that he shared Kyi Lin’s intent to kill U Ko Ni, U Aung Khaing said.
“Prosecutors said the accused took time to plan the murder, but not a single piece of evidence was put forward to prove it,” U Aung Khaing said in his rebuttal of the plaintiff’s case.
Daw Pa Pa Win, a defense lawyer for Zeya Phyo, also told the judges that the prosecution had not presented any witnesses to corroborate the Home Affairs Ministry’s claim, made at a press conference, that her client was a conspirator who financed the assassination.
“The information [police] offered at the press conference was obtained during the interrogation process, but not at the court,” she told the judges.
“There was no proof presented by the plaintiff side that he financed the murder, either,” she added.
U Nay La, a lawyer representing the family of slain lawyer U Ko Ni at the trial, told the media that asking for explicit evidence of a connection between the suspects was “unacceptable”, adding that the court had been furnished with all the evidence it needed.
“Why were they at the airport [before the murder]? Why were they communicating with each other via phones?” U Nay La asked, citing police testimony including records of phone calls between the accused.
“In short, they need to answer these questions once the court charges them,” he added.
The court will decide next Friday which legal provisions the accused will be charged under. Defense lawyers for Aung Win Zaw, Zeya Phyo and Aung Win Tun have asked that their clients be released before the court brings charges.
Before the hearing, a group of fewer than 10 nationalists appeared at the court to show their support for the four defendants, wearing T-shirts reading: “Eat Well (Before You Are Killed)!”— a threatening phrase in Burmese used when someone is angry and warning of revenge.
At one of the hearings last month, Robert San Aung, a lawyer for slain taxi driver U Nay Win, alleged that the defendants had shouted the phrase at reporters and plaintiff lawyers outside the courtroom. Aung Win Zaw denied the allegation.
The nationalists said they had gotten to know Kyi Lin in prison after being jailed unjustly.
“It is to show that we stand with them. We came here solely out of personal respect for them,” said Myint Phoe Muu, one of the nationalists. He said they were not acting on behalf of any organization.
The nationalists added that they supported Kyi Lin because, in their opinion, he did what needed to be done.
Additional reporting by Min Min.
Tin Htet Paing is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Yangon. She previously worked at The Irrawaddy as a reporter for three years.