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A group of Myanmar activists hold up placards calling for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners, in Tokyo, on May 22.PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images

A court in military-ruled Myanmar sentenced a close colleague of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi to 21 years in prison on Friday after finding him guilty of corruption, a legal official said.

Zaw Myint Maung is a second vice president and spokesperson of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which won a landslide victory in the 2020 general election but was prevented from returning to office for a second five-year term when the army seized power in February last year.

Widespread protests met the military’s takeover and Myanmar has been mired in violence and civil unrest since then.

The military sought to justify its takeover by saying there was massive voting fraud in the election, an allegation that independent poll watchers disputed. The ruling military council has said it may hold a new election by August 2023.

However, the Union Election Commission, with members appointed by the army after it seized power, could dissolve the National League for Democracy if it rules it committed election fraud.

Suu Kyi was arrested and is being tried on multiple charges, including corruption, that her supporters say are politically motivated to discredit her and legitimize the military’s seizure of power. She has already been convicted of several less important offences.

The military government has also arrested many other leaders of her party, which could cripple its attempts to challenge the military in new polls. Charges against them include treason, corruption, incitement and flouting coronavirus regulations.

A statement from the National League for Democracy released last month said 917 party officials and members have been arrested and 701 are still being detained by the military.

Zaw Myint Maung has been a core member of the party since its inception and won a seat in a 1990 election that was voided by the army. He has been jailed at least twice before last year for his political activities He won election to the lower house in 2012 and state parliament in 2015, after which he was appointed chief minister of Mandalay, a central region considered the country’s heartland.

Like many colleagues, he was arrested by the military on Feb. 1, 2021. He has been held at Mandalay’s Obo Prison, where his trial was held in closed chambers.

The court found him guilty on five corruption counts, said a legal official familiar with his cases who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information.

He said Zaw Myint Maung pleaded not guilty to three charges of accepting bribes that went for medical treatment – he suffers from leukemia – and two that he abused his position as chief minister in acquiring land for party offices. Each charge carries a maximum punishment of 15 years’ imprisonment.

The legal official said his lawyers are likely to appeal the court’s ruling.

Zaw Myint Maung has already been sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted on charges of violating coronavirus restrictions, sedition and election fraud, and is to be tried on another election fraud charge.

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