January 31, 2018 / 11:00 PM / 22 days ago

Reuters reporters arrested in Myanmar due to appear in court

YANGON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Two Reuters journalists accused of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act are due in court on Thursday as the prosecution presents more witnesses, while a defence lawyer has said the judge will rule on a bail request.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in Rakhine state, where an army crackdown on insurgents since the end of August has triggered the flight of 688,000 Rohingya Muslims, according to the United Nations.

The reporters were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon. They have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two officers they had not met before.

At the last court hearing on Jan. 23, the first prosecution witness, Police Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing, said the reporters were arrested while they were walking along a road carrying four official documents that included a listing of forces and weapons of a police battalion in the Maungdaw district of Rakhine state.

Yu Naing repeatedly told the court “I don’t know”, when asked about the circumstances of the arrest because it was only reported to him by subordinates. He could not point to evidence that the defendants were acting for the enemy or hostile forces, defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing.

The prosecution has 24 other witnesses in the case, more than half of whom are police officers, Khin Maung Zaw has said. Another police witness was likely to be called on Thursday, he said.

A ruling on an application for bail will also be announced at the hearing in a Yangon district court, Khin Maung Zaw said.

The prosecution has previously objected to the bail application.

Reuters repeated its calls for the pair’s prompt release in a statement after the last hearing.

“They are innocent of any wrongdoing and should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar,” the news agency said.

SECRETS ACT CHARGES

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being tried under the Official Secrets Act, which dates back to 1923 - when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was under British rule - and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

They have been accused under Section 3.1 (c) of the act, which covers entering prohibited places, and taking images or obtaining secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”.

Government officials from some of the world’s major nations, including the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as top U.N. officials, have called for the reporters to be freed.

Veteran U.S. politician Bill Richardson said last week that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s response was “furious” when he brought up the case in a meeting with her.

Richardson quit an international panel advising the Myanmar government on the Rohingya crisis, saying it was conducting a “whitewash” and accusing Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership”.

Suu Kyi’s office said her government had asked Richardson to step down and accused him of pursuing “his own agenda”.

A statement from the nine remaining members of the advisory board said they met last week “with open minds” and rejected Richardson’s criticism that he feared the panel would be used as “a cheerleading squad”. (Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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