“Save my brother from Myanmar prison”

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ASAN, South Chungcheong Province ― Lee Sang-beom, 48, a Korean businessman and father of two children, was full of hope and optimism when he opened a medical device sales firm in Myanmar five years ago.

In the country, dubbed “the last frontier in Asia,” Lee was excited to start a new chapter in his life. But his dreams were shattered in 2016 when police found illegal drugs in his car and home.

Lee insisted on his innocence, saying his interpreter and her husband planted the evidence on him, but the district court did not believe him and sentenced him to 11 years in prison, which was upheld by the appeals court last month. Now his fate is in the hands of the Supreme Court.

His younger brother Lee Sang-su, 47, told The Korea Times last week how his “Myanmar dream” turned into a nightmare.

“I’m absolutely certain he is innocent,” Lee Sang-su said. “He just fell into a trap set by the person he trusted. Now he lives in pain every day and regrets the decision to go there in the first place … When I visited him at Insein Prison in Yangon earlier this month, he said he had lost more than 20 kilograms since he was put behind bars 22 months ago.”

On Oct. 20, 2016, Lee Sang-beom and his interpreter “Charlene,” who is bilingual in Korean and Burmese, were scheduled to visit Mawlamyine from their city Taungoo for business matters. They initially planned to leave early in the morning, but Charlene delayed their departure for “health reasons.”

When they finally hit the road at around 2 p.m., Charlene made a phone call, saying she would like to order some drinks. Soon, a man on a bike delivered what was believed to be drinks in a black plastic bag to them in the car. And 10 minutes later, police stopped their vehicle and said they found illegal drugs in the plastic bag. Immediately, the two were taken into custody. A few days later, police found illegal drugs also at his home. Everything happened so quickly.

But to Lee Sang-beom’s relief, Charlene later confessed to the police that she conspired with her husband to frame him for a drug crime. They said they thought all of Lee’s properties would be hers if he goes to prison because he, as a foreigner, registered his business there in her name.

“We thought there was nothing to worry about anymore and everything would be fine,” Lee Sang-su said. “But she changed her testimony in court.”

Charlene was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison for high-level possession and use of illicit drugs. Police are also hunting for her husband who faces similar charges.

Lee Sang-beom tested negative for drugs. But the court did not accept his claims that he was a victim of their frame-up, rejecting Charlene’s testimony made during police questioning.

Drug crimes are considered one of the most serious kinds in Myanmar.

Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has urged Myanmar authorities to handle the case fairly and lawfully.

“It is inappropriate to evaluate the court rulings. But we listened to his side of the story and explained his position to the Myanmar government,” a senior ministry official said. “Lee has no criminal record. We have asked the authorities to maintain the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a final court ruling.”

The Korea Times contacted the Embassy of Myanmar in Seoul Monday to ask whether the Myanmar government is aware of the ministry’s request but has not received a response.

Many Koreans living in Myanmar are now convinced he is innocent, “but there is almost nothing we can do to help him,” said a Korean man, who has been doing business in the country for the last five years.

The long legal battle has demoralized Lee Sang-beom and put his family in a financial bind.

In desperation, Lee Sang-su posted a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website in June to urge the government to help his brother. It has garnered more than 8,000 signatures so far.

“He said every day is extremely difficult to endure but he keeps on fighting, because there is still a ray of hope,” Lee Sang-su said. “His family and friends all hope for his safe return.”

By Jung Min-ho

(Korea Times)

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