American's fervid swim to Suu Kyi sparked trial

The Associated PressAugust 12, 2009 

— John William Yettaw thought he was on a mission from God to save Myanmar's jailed opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But the American ended up inadvertently extending her house arrest.

It started with his now infamous swim to her lakeside villa in Yangon in May. Overweight, asthmatic and suffering from borderline diabetes, he arrived at the back door of the Nobel Peace laureate's home and lay down exhausted, with cramps in both legs. Suu Kyi's two companions heard him moaning but let him in only after dawn.

Then Suu Kyi herself told him to get out, allowing him to stay two nights when he complained of ill health instead of kicking him out onto the street. She later explained she had known so many colleagues who were unfairly arrested and would not wish that fate on him.

The bizarre visit led to a trial in which Suu Kyi was sentenced Tuesday to 18 more months of detention on a charge of violating her house arrest, and 53-year-old Yettaw got seven years' imprisonment with hard labor.

Suu Kyi's house arrest for her pro-democracy activities had been expected to be over at the end of May. But Yettaw's visit gave the ruling military junta a pretext to keep her detained through a general election planned for next year.

Yettaw had spent the final days before the verdict in a hospital for epileptic seizures, isolated and under guard. His sentence shocked his family.

"How is he going to do hard labor if he is so ill?" a former wife, Yvonne Yettaw, told The Associated Press by telephone from Palm Springs, Calif. "Maybe they'll realize he won't make it seven years, and they'll send him home."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Tuesday that the seven-year sentence given to Yettaw is cruel and excessive.

"We remain greatly concerned about his health and the harsh sentence imposed upon him," Crowley said.

Yettaw had arrived dripping at Suu Kyi's house with little more than a pair of homemade flippers, a camera in a waterproof bag and a warning -- he'd had a "vision" that Suu Kyi would be assassinated. But when observers at her trial called the 53-year-old American a fool, Suu Kyi chose to defend him, saying he had a right to say what he believed.

While in prison awaiting trial, Yettaw also received the news that one of his children, an adult son, had died -- the second child he had lost.

In August 2007, his 17-year-old son died in a motorcycle accident.

"After Clint's death, he took something that was already of intense interest to him because of previous experiences in his life, healing/forgiveness following traumatic events, and threw himself into his research, which precipitated his six months in Asia last year," said Paul Nedrow, Yettaw's stepson.

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