By Colin Packham and Alison Bevege
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s attorney general said that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has diplomatic immunity, rejecting a bid by activist lawyers to have her face charges for crimes against humanity over the country’s treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims.
Lawyer Alison Battisson said she filed the private prosecution on behalf of Australia’s Rohingya community on Friday in Melbourne Magistrates Court and had not had a formal response from Attorney General Christian Porter.
“As it is an ongoing matter that’s about all I can say,” she told Reuters by phone.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, said on Sunday such “pressure” was unhelpful in solving the conflict in the troubled western state of Rakhine, which he called “the Bengali problem”.
Many in Myanmar refer to the Rohingya as Bengalis and insist they are immigrants from Bangladesh.
Militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had instigated the violence with attacks on government forces in October 2016 and August 2017, said Zaw Htay.
“All of this happened because of ARSA. The government did nothing,” he said in response to a question about the legal move.
“Those who are putting pressure like this need to be careful that doesn’t become encouraging terrorists.”
According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh after militant attacks on Aug. 25 last year sparked a crackdown led by security forces in Rakhine that the United Nations and United States have said constitute ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar denies the charge and has asked for “clear evidence” of abuses by security forces.
Porter said he would not allow the prosecution of Suu Kyi, who arrived in Sydney on Saturday for regional talks, citing diplomatic immunity provisions, which protect foreign heads of state from being arrested, detained or served with court proceedings.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has complete immunity, including from being served with court documents, because under customary international law, heads of state, heads of government and ministers of foreign affairs are immune from foreign criminal proceedings and are inviolable,” Porter told Reuters by email.
Suu Kyi is foreign affairs minister as well as state counselor.
The lawyers’ case argues that Suu Kyi “failed to use her position of authority and power” to prevent the “deportation” of Rohingya people from Myanmar, according to a statement emailed by Battisson.
Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which is recognized in Australia, courts can try individuals suspected of crimes against humanity or war crimes regardless of where they were alleged to have been committed, although it requires the permission of the attorney general.
The legal action coincided with the start of Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Sydney.
Australia hosted the meetings, despite not being a member of the 10-nation bloc, as it seeks to tighten political and trade ties in the region amid China’s rising influence.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi’s invitation sparked protests, which included about 100 activists gathering on Saturday in Sydney’s Hyde Park where they chanted “Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you”.
Suu Kyi spoke at length about Rakhine at a conference on Sunday and appealed to Southeast Asian neighbors for help, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook, James Redmayne, David Gray, Simon Lewis and Shoon Naing; Editing by Nick Macfie)