YANGON (Reuters) - A Myanmar police chief ordered officers to “trap” a Reuters reporter arrested in December, telling them to meet the journalist at a restaurant and give him “secret documents”, prosecution witness Police Captain Moe Yan Naing told a court on Friday.
Moe Yan Naing gave details to the court of the hours leading up to the Dec. 12 arrest of Wa Lone, 32, and Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who had accompanied him to the meeting, and said the police had arranged a “set up”.
The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether the pair 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, they had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
“This officer spoke based on his own feelings,” Police spokesman Colonel Myo Thu Soe told Reuters by phone after the hearing. He said Moe Yan Naing’s testimony “cannot be assumed as true - we still need to listen to the remaining witnesses so the situation will become clearer”.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said in a text message response, in English, to Reuters questions: “It’s in the court process now, we already assured to get the cover of the independent judiciary.”
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is part of the team representing the Reuters reporters, said in a statement the prosecution should now drop the case or the judge should dismiss it.
In a statement after the hearing, Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said: “Today the court finally heard the truth. One of the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted that the police received orders to plant evidence and arrest Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on false charges. This case cannot be squared with fairness or justice, and it’s time to bring it to an end.”
In his testimony, the police captain said he had been interviewed in November by Wa Lone about police operations in Rakhine state. He was one of two officers from the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion who the police identified in December as “allegedly involved in the case”.
Moe Yan Naing said he had been under arrest since the night of Dec. 12, accused of violating the Police Disciplinary Act.
He said that earlier on the day the Reuters reporters were arrested he was picked up from his post in Yangon and taken to Battalion 8’s headquarters on the northern edges of the city.
When he arrived, he said he found himself among a group of several other Battalion 8 policemen who had given interviews to Wa Lone. They were interrogated by what he described as a police “information team” about their interactions with the Reuters reporter.
Moe Yan Naing told the court that police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, who led the internal probe, ordered police Lance Corporal Naing Lin to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that night and hand over “secret documents from Battalion 8”.
“Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko gave the documents to Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin and told him to give them to Wa Lone and said that when Wa Lone comes out of the restaurant, the Htaunt Kyant regional police force has to entrap him and arrest him,” said Moe Yan Naing.
“Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko told the police members, ‘if you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail’,” said Moe Yan Naing. He told the court he witnessed the exchange.
Moe Yan Naing said the police chief violated police ethics and “disgraced the union government and made the union government misunderstood by the international community”.
Tin Ko Ko has previously served as the police chief in Rakhine state and in a senior police post in the capital Naypyitaw, according to local media and the police spokesman. He is currently head of the No.2 security police command based in Yangon, which oversees security police battalions, said police spokesman Myo Thu Soe.
Asked about Moe Yan Naing’s account of Tin Ko Ko’s orders, the police spokesman said that the brigadier general “has no reason to do such a thing. A police brigadier general who is serving at Myanmar police force would not act irresponsibly.”
Myo Thu Soe declined to comment further on specific accusations Moe Yan Naing made during his testimony.
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.
Neither policeman has given testimony so far during the court proceedings.
Previous police witnesses have said the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who were unaware they were journalists, and were found to be holding documents relating to security force deployments in Rakhine.
After Moe Yan Naing gave his testimony, lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung filed a motion to have him declared a “hostile witness”, according to defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.
Khin Maung Zaw explained that if he declares the witness as “hostile” the judge would put less weight on his testimony. However, he added that “we can still use his testimony, along with the other information, testimony and pieces of evidence”.
The judge adjourned the proceedings until April 25.
The prosecutor did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Yimou Lee, Aye Win Myint and Sam Aung Moon; Editing by John Chalmers, Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry