Ko Ni killers face death penalty as Myanmar court decides fate

Ko Ni killers face death penalty as Myanmar court decides fate

Yangon, Myanmar – When she was about seven or eight-years-old, Yin Nwe Khine accidentally stepped on her father’s eyeglasses, snapping them in two. 

Other parents she knew of might have scolded or hit their children for such carelessness.

But Ko Ni, a lawyer who would later become renowned for his opposition to the Myanmar military’s grip on power, was different.

Instead of getting angry, he invited his daughter to survey the damage, explaining that he could not read without his glasses. “Do you see? This is the consequence of negligence,” she recalls him saying.

“He always tried to show people what their rights were and what were their responsibilities,” Yin Nwe Khine, who is now in her mid-30, told Al Jazeera at the family apartment in central Yangon.

“He taught us like he taught the people of this country.”

On Friday, a court in Yangon will decide the fate of three men, including two former military officers, accused of conspiring to assassinate Ko Ni, and a fourth man accused of harbouring one of the defendants. 

The lawyer, a close confidante of Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was working on plans to amend or replace the military-drafted constitution when a gunman shot him in the back of the head at Yangon’s airport in January 2017.

Memorial held for Myanmar’s influential lawyer U Ko Ni

Ko Ni’s killing was a major blow to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which took office in 2016 promising to amend a charter that entrenches the generals’ power even as they take a back seat in the wake of decades of military rule.  

The prosecution want the death penalty for the three alleged conspirators, although in practice this is likely to mean a life time in prison as Myanmar has not executed a death-row inmate since the late 1980s.

Prominent lawyer

In a country under fragile civilian rule and struggling with resurgent Buddhist nationalism, Ko Ni knew it was dangerous – especially for a prominent member of Myanmar’s Muslim minority – to face off with the military; in the months leading up to his killing, he received several death threats, according to his family.

But he did not let fear override his sense of duty. “He took his responsibilities very seriously. He always thought if you do something, small or big, you have to take responsibility,” said Yin Nwe Khine.

Once, when she told him she wanted to become a doctor, he cautioned her. There were two professions that required taking on other people’s problems, he warned. One was the law, the other medicine.

“So you’ll have none of your own time, you won’t have time to relax,” she recalls him saying. “If you are ready for the consequences, you can do it.”

Ko Ni kept his family and work life separate. He even stopped taking on criminal cases because he thought it was too distressing for his wife, mother and children when clients came to his home office having suffered a terrible tragedy.

But the family still caught glimpses of his life among Myanmar’s rising political elite, a cohort of former dissidents and political prisoners who were getting to grips with parliamentary democracy as the country underwent a dizzying transformation. 

Hanging on the living room wall in their colonial-era apartment is a picture of Ko Ni and his wife, Tin Tin Aye, posing with Aung San Suu Kyi.

“That day was the first time ever I met Daw Suu,” said Tin Tin Aye, using the honorific used to address older women.

The picture is from 2012, when Ko Ni was helping educate people about how to vote in an historic by-election that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament less than two years after she had been released from years of house arrest.

Tin Tin Aye was at first afraid to approach the woman who had become an icon, “but she welcomed me very warmly like a sister and she hugged me”. 

While Aung San Suu Kyi has disappointed many supporters who say she has failed to stand up for Myanmar’s minority Muslims and kowtowed to hardliners, Ko Ni continued to believe in his political idol.

Ko Ni, a legal adviser for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy and a prominent member of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, pictured in Naypyitaw in February 2016 [File: Aung Shine Oo/AP Photo]

Still, when the NLD failed to field a single Muslim candidate for the 2015 general election, the lawyer broke ranks to speak to the press about his concerns, even as he defended the decision as a political necessity.

Just days after Ko Ni was gunned down, the infamous anti-Muslim monk Wirathu took to Facebook to publicly thank the killers.

“I feel relief for the future of Buddhism in my country,” the monk wrote, according to the Irrawaddy news website. “Anyone who wants to scrap the constitution should be mindful,” he added.

Political will

When police raided the office of a company owned by Zeyar Phyo, the man accused of bankrolling the assassination, they found a recording of Wirathu’s teachings.

In court, Zeyar Phyo, a former military intelligence captain, denied being a religious “extremist” and said police found the disc outside of his personal workspace, according to Reuters news agency.

Kyi Lin, second from right front, found guilty of killing Ko Ni, escorted by Myanmar police at an earlier court appearance wiht fellow accused Aung Win Zaw, centre left, and Aung Win Tun, right back. The three will be sentenced on Friday. [File/Thein Zaw/AP Photo]

No evidence has come to light of any current military officers being involved in the killing, but there are signs of active links between the defendants and Myanmar’s powerful military establishment.  

Myanmar’s police chief and home affairs minister told a press conference in 2017 that when three men met in a teashop and plotted to kill Ko Ni, they were joined by a former assistant to Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief.

The assistant, Lin Zaw Tun, made a donation of about $15,000 to Wirathu in 2015, according to local media.

One of the men in the teashop was the suspected mastermind, a retired lieutenant colonel named Aung Win Khine. He has so far evaded arrest.

His absence from criminal proceedings represents a “failure of rule of law”, said Zar Li Aye, a legal expert and criminal defence lawyer.

Authorities have failed to move decisively to catch him. “To me, this is a lack of political will,” she added.

For Yin Nwe Khine, whatever happens on Friday and whether or not justice is served is an abstract question; her father is never coming back.

Her thoughts are of what the case will mean for Myanmar.

“For our family nothing changes, whatever the punishment is,” she said. “But it will change the future of the country.”

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