Myanmar jails foreign journalists with Turkish broadcaster for two months

NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - A Myanmar court on Friday jailed for two months two journalists on assignment for Turkey’s state broadcaster, along with their interpreter and driver, for violating an aircraft law by filming with a drone.

Myanmar journalist Aung Naing Soe arrives for his first appearance in the court after he was detained for attempting to fly a drone near parliament in the capital, Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Cameraman Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and reporter Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia, were detained on Oct. 27 along with their Myanmar interpreter, Aung Naing Soe, and driver, Hla Tin.

The four had been working on a documentary for TRT World, the English-language subsidiary of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, when they were detained for attempting to fly a drone near parliament in the capital, Naypyitaw.

None of the four is a Turkish national, but the case has further strained diplomatic ties after President Tayyip Erdogan accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out “genocide” of Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country.

Police initially investigated whether they had violated an import-export rule that carries a penalty of up to three years in jail, but the judge opted to introduce a fresh charge of contravening the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, which carries a maximum sentence of three months.

Both the cameraman and reporter pleaded guilty to the lesser charge, and the judge sentenced all four to two months, according to a Reuters reporter at the hearing.

A fresh hearing will be held on Nov. 16 to decide if charges of violating the import-export rules are to be made.

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“The detainees admitted that they committed the crime, hoping they would only be fined, so it shocked us when the judge sentenced them to two months,” said defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.

The lawyer said he would appeal for the sentence to be reduced to a fine.

Before Friday’s proceedings began, Mok told reporters in the court they were sorry for any disrespect of Myanmar’s laws, but complained that the legal process had lacked transparency.

“We have no idea what is going on, and we are not allowed to speak to our family,” she said.

“And the rules and procedures are not explained to us. We were asked to sign statements that are completely in Burmese that we cannot understand.”

As he was brought to court, interpreter Aung Naing Soe told reporters the four had not been mistreated while in custody, though police had asked about who they had spoken to and trips he made to several of restive Myanmar regions, including Rakhine.

David Baulk, of the rights group Fortify Rights, called the judge’s decision to accept the charges, deny bail and sentence the four defendants as “ridiculous as it is dangerous”.

“Once again Myanmar’s judicial system has failed to stand up to state security forces and their blatant abuses of power,” Baulk, a specialist on Myanmar human rights for the group, told Reuters by email.

Myanmar says the military counter-insurgency launched in August was provoked by Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in Rakhine State, and has denied both Erdogan’s accusation and a top UN official’s description of the operation as a “classic case of ethnic cleansing”.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh since the military operation began.

Reporting by Min Min in NAYPYITAW and Shoon Naing in YANGON; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez