YANGON (Reuters) - A Reuters reporter on trial in Myanmar said the police questioning after he and a colleague were arrested in December centered on their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, not on secret state documents they are accused of obtaining.
Wa Lone, 32, also said the police deprived him and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, of sleep for more than two days, and placed black hoods over their heads while transporting them to a secret detention site where they were held incommunicado for two weeks.
In hours of testimony, delivered over two days before a court in Yangon, Wa Lone also described what he called the police “trap” to arrest him. His account was the most comprehensive challenge heard so far to the prosecution’s accusation that the two journalists were detained at a routine traffic stop and found to be holding secret documents from an unknown source.
“During the whole interrogation, they didn’t ask with interest about the secret documents found on us, but they probed our reporting of Maungdaw, Rakhine,” Wa Lone told the court. “I hadn’t slept for many hours but they kept interrogating me. I was exhausted.”
At the time of their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in the village of Inn Din in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh last year.
The Reuters journalists are on trial for allegedly breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The case has attracted global attention, with many governments calling for the reporters’ release in what has come to be seen as a test of press freedom in Myanmar.
Describing the night of their arrest on Dec. 12, Wa Lone told the judge and a courtroom packed with family members and diplomats that he and Kyaw Soe Oo were handcuffed by a group of men in civilian clothing outside a restaurant where they had just met a police officer who handed them some documents.
As they were driven to a police station a man who appeared to be in charge called a police lieutenant colonel - whose name was visible on the man’s phone screen - and told him, “we’ve got them, sir”, Wa Lone said.
Defense lawyers have previously said the evidence put forward by the prosecution showed the journalists were arrested in a sting operation by the police that was aimed at interfering with their reporting.
Myanmar police spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe did not answer calls seeking comment on Tuesday. Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung also declined to comment after the hearing.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law. He did not answer calls seeking comment on Tuesday.
Throughout his testimony Wa Lone insisted on his innocence, saying he was only carrying out his work as a journalist.
“I am a young person who has always tried to contribute to the development of the country,” he said. “I’ve only ever worked for media organizations, and have never worked in other types of organizations. I am not a spy.”
He said police had accessed his phone and found photographs of the 10 men killed at Inn Din and his call logs to sources in the village. One of the investigators told Wa Lone they would probe the killings after they discovered the information on the phone.
Six days after the journalists were arrested, the military said in a statement that security forces had found a mass grave in Inn Din and had launched an investigation. In the weeks that followed, the army made a rare admission its soldiers were involved in the murders and said it sentenced seven unnamed soldiers to 10 years in jail.
The authorities have told Reuters that the sentencing was unrelated to the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Wa Lone told the court that during the interrogation, an officer offered a “negotiation” over the journalists’ arrest if they agreed not to publish the massacre story – an offer he said he rejected.
Wa Lone also said the police criticized their reporting, questioning why they were writing about the Rohingya.
“They said, ‘You are both Buddhists. Why are you writing about ‘kalars’ at a time like this? They aren’t citizens’,” Wa Lone said, quoting the interrogating officers. “Kalar” is a derogatory term used to describe people of South Asian origin, especially Muslims.
At one point during the two weeks he was held at the detention site Wa Lone said the reporters were driven to a secluded spot while hooded, making him fear for his life.
In cross-examination, prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung asked whether Reuters benefited from the reporters’ work, what currency the reporter was paid in and whether the articles Wa Lone wrote were sent to Reuters headquarters in the United States.
The prosecutor also asked whether Wa Lone had been aware that he was found in possession of secret documents related to the security forces. The reporter said he had not been aware of the nature of the documents handed to him minutes before he was arrested.
Judge Ye Lwin adjourned the hearing until July 23, when the cross-examination will continue.
Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Poppy McPhearson, Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Alex Richardson