YANGON (Reuters) - A judge in Myanmar declared on Wednesday that a witness who said two Reuters reporters accused of possessing state secrets were framed by police was credible, dealing a blow to the prosecution in what has become a landmark press freedom case.
In what defense lawyers said was a key ruling in favor of the two reporters, the judge accepted the testimony of Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, who said a senior officer had ordered police to “trap” one of the two journalists arrested in December.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said the judge ordered police to bring Moe Yan Naing to the next hearing on May 9, after a police officer told the court he was not present because he was sentenced last week to one year in prison for violating the Police Disciplinary Act.
“We need to question him more,” Judge Ye Lwin told Police Captain Myo Lwin, one of the officers who had escorted the two journalists to the courthouse, at the end of the proceedings.
Prosecutors had called Moe Yan Naing to testify against Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, but last week asked the court to declare him an unreliable witness after the account he gave about the reporters being “set up” appeared to undermine their case.
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“Today, the court has proved itself as a court of justice,” defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters at the end of the hearing, adding that the ruling was “a big step” because Moe Yan Naing’s testimony supported the accounts given by the reporters.
Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung did not respond to a request for comment after the hearing.
Myanmar’s civilian government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment, citing the ongoing proceedings. Police spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe said he was not aware of the events in the court and declined to comment.
As he left court, Wa Lone told reporters: “The injustice that they did to us will be revealed soon.”
Later on Wednesday Mark Field, a junior British foreign minister, called again on authorities in Myanmar to halt a “gross perversion” of press freedom.
He added that he had a productive meeting with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of the team representing the Reuters reporters.
The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether the Reuters journalists will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
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 an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
Moe Yan Naing said in his testimony that he had been interviewed by Wa Lone in November about police operations in Rakhine.
Defence and prosecution lawyers made legal arguments in front of the judge a week ago on a motion filed by prosecutors following Moe Yan Naing’s April 20 testimony.
Prosecutors argued that the police captain had told a different story to investigators when he was arrested. They also said Moe Yan Naing held a grudge against the police authorities because he was facing charges.
Judge Ye Lwin ruled on Wednesday that the police captain’s testimony did not contradict earlier statements made to the investigators at the time of his own arrest.
The judge said Moe Yan Naing was a member of the police force so “it is not suitable to consider him as an unreliable witness”.
Moe Yan Naing was arrested on Dec. 12, the same day Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained by police.
Moe Yan Naing told the court that earlier that day he had witnessed Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko order a lance corporal to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone at a restaurant in Yangon that night and hand over “secret documents” to entrap him.
Reuters has been unable to contact Tin Ko Ko for comment. A police spokesman said after Moe Yan Naing’s testimony that the brigadier general “has no reason to do such a thing”.
The courtroom was packed on Wednesday, with diplomats from France, the European Union, the United States and Australia among those attending.
Reporting By Shoon Naing and Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung, Sam Aung Moon, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson