Myanmar government says case against Reuters journalists can proceed

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s civilian President Htin Kyaw, a close ally of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has authorized the police to proceed with a case against two detained Reuters reporters accused of violating the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, a senior government spokesman said.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski

Journalists Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested last Tuesday evening after they were invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs has already submitted the case to the Office of the President,” Zaw Htay, spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi, said by phone late on Sunday. He added that the president’s office had given approval for the case to go ahead.

Zaw Htay could not be reached on Monday to clarify whether Htin Kyaw or Suu Kyi had been personally involved in the decision, or if other officials had signed off on the president’s behalf.

Suu Kyi, head of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), is barred from the presidency under a constitution written by the military. But she effectively runs the country in the role of “state counselor”.

Approval from the president’s office is needed before court proceedings can begin in a case brought under the Official Secrets Act. Section 13 of the Act states: “No Court shall take cognizance of any offense under this Act unless upon complaint made by order of, or under authority from, the President of the Union.”

A number of governments, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler and a host of journalists’ and human rights’ groups have criticized the arrests as an attack on press freedom and called on Myanmar to release the two men.

Zaw Htay said the journalists’ legal rights were being respected. “Your reporters are protected by the rule of the law,” he said. “All I can say is the government can guarantee the rule of law.”

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But two senior figures in the NLD on Monday joined the criticism of how the two men are being treated.

Nyan Win, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee and one of Suu Kyi’s defense lawyers during her years of house arrest under junta rule, said it was “unfair” that the families of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were not allowed to contact them or be told where they are being held.

He said the police were being “very secretive” and called for “openness”, although said the NLD was unable to do anything about the issue as it was not being kept informed.

Although an NLD-led civilian government took office in April last year the police and home ministry, which are driving the case, remain under the control of the military.

Win Htein, another senior figure in the NLD, who was also critical of the journalists’ detention, suggested they had probably been set up by the police. “In my opinion this is a trap,” he said. “They met with two policemen and then they were arrested somewhere else with the documents.”

Police Lieutenant Colonel Myint Htwe, of the Yangon Police Division, had no comment when asked about the criticism of the men’s detention.

Asked on Mizzima Television what he would do for the detained journalists, Information Minister Pe Myint said: “When I know all the facts of the current case, I will work to do what I can.”

Pe Myint is a former editor of the People’s Age in Yangon and was Wa Lone’s boss when the journalist worked at the paper in his first job as a reporter.

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The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis that has seen an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims flee from a fierce military crackdown on militants in western Rakhine state.

The Ministry of Information said last week that they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, and released a photo of the pair in handcuffs.

It said they were being investigated under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The ministry said at the same time that two policemen, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing and Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin, had also been arrested under the same act. No details have been released on whether a case against them is also proceeding.

The authorities have not allowed the journalists any contact with their families, a lawyer or Reuters since their arrest.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of the pair.

“All detainees must be allowed prompt access to a lawyer and to family members,” said Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, in a statement on Monday.

“Authorities are bound to respect these rights in line with Myanmar law and the State’s international law obligations.”

Police told Wa Lone’s wife on Thursday that the reporters were taken from Htaunt Kyant police station in north Yangon to an undisclosed location by an investigation team shortly after their arrest.

They added the reporters would be brought back to the station in “two to three days at most”. It is now six days since they were detained and there has been no further update on their whereabouts.

Lieutenant Colonel Myint Htwe and a second senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Min Han of the Criminal Investigation Department, said on Monday they did not know where the journalists were being held.

“You don’t need to worry for their safety,” said Lt Col Myint Htwe. “The investigative team will proceed according to the law.”

Reporting by Yimou Lee, Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by John Chalmers and Martin Howell