June 4, 2018 / 3:21 PM / in 13 days

Defense says Myanmar police withheld evidence from Reuters reporters' phones

YANGON (Reuters) - Data that could support the defense of two Reuters reporters accused of possessing secret documents in Myanmar was missing from police phone evidence submitted to a court by prosecutors, their lawyers said on Monday.

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone walks escorted by police during a break at a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung said some key files, including communications records from the reporters’ phones before their arrests on Dec. 12, were not included in a report of the data police say they found on the devices that was accepted as evidence by the court last month.

He requested the court to direct the prosecution to submit further details, arguing the additional files would help reveal “truth and justice”.

(Follow latest updates on detained reporters: here)

Judge Ye Lwin rejected the defense request, saying further details were not necessary because a police IT expert has previously demonstrated how the files were extracted “systematically” from the reporters’ phones.

In what has become a landmark press freedom case, the court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

REFILE - CORRECTING GRAMMAR Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone leaves after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung told the court the phones’ call logs were not relevant to the documents that police say they found on the devices. He did not elaborate. Those documents included allegedly confidential government letters and plans for the development of an island off Myanmar’s west coast for tourism.

A second defense lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, told Reuters after Monday’s proceedings that the defense believed “evidence which is beneficial to the defense has not been fully disclosed by the prosecution”.

Kyaw Min Aung declined to comment.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. Previously, he has declined to discuss details of the proceedings or the police investigation, saying Myanmar’s courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.

Slideshow (5 Images)

The next hearing in the case was scheduled for Tuesday.

PHONE RECORDS

At the time of their arrest, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.

Whether Wa Lone was called by police to set up a meeting or rang them himself in the hours before the reporters were arrested has been a contested point at previous hearings.

Defense lawyers have previously said phone records show one of the police officers, Naing Lin, called Wa Lone three times on the day the pair were arrested.

Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung told the court on Monday that Naing Lin had insisted during his testimony that he did not call Wa Lone on Dec. 12, but that the reporter had called him to initiate a meeting. “It’s the defense’s responsibility to prove otherwise.” he said.

Last month, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered Naing Lin to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone and give him secret documents on to “trap” the reporter. Naing Lin denied that when he testified last month.

After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline and his family was evicted from police housing. Police have said the eviction and his sentencing were not related to his testimony.

Reporting By Thu Thu Aung and Yimou Lee; Editing by Alex Richardson

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