YANGON (Reuters) - Police in Myanmar searched the family home of Reuters reporter Wa Lone looking for material “related to news” the night after he and a colleague were arrested on suspicion of violating the Official Secrets Act, an officer told a court on Wednesday.
Myanmar has previously denied accusations Wa Lone, 31, and fellow Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were targeted over their reporting of a crisis in northern Rakhine state.
Court proceedings are under way in Yangon to decide if they will faces charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Before Wednesday’s hearing a doctor examined and took blood samples from the pair at the request of the defense, after their lawyer raised concerns that their health had deteriorated in prison. Both have been in custody since their arrest on Dec. 12.
Prosecution witness Police Major Soe Aung told the court he had been sent to search Wa Lone’s family home in northern Yangon on the evening of Dec. 13.
Asked during cross-examination what police were looking for, he said the 10 or so police officers who entered the house were “searching in relation to news”. He did not elaborate.
The reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men who were buried in a mass grave in northern Rakhine state after being hacked to death or shot by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers and soldiers.
The military excavated the shallow grave in December, days after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested, saying they had received a tip-off. Authorities are taking action against 10 members of the security forces and six villagers, according to a government spokesman.
“Police went my home to search about Rakhine and what we were reporting, and they surely aimed to sue us to stop our reporting,” Wa Lone told reporters during a break.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, said last month that the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
The government prosecutor, Kyaw Min Aung, did not respond to a Reuters reporter who attempted to ask him about the case after the hearing on Wednesday. Government spokespeople have declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.
Soe Aung testified that during the search police found a reporters’ notebook from the Myanmar Times, where Wa Lone had worked prior to joining Reuters in 2016, that included the phone number of a leader of an ethnic Rakhine armed group, which was recorded on a police search form at the time of the search.
Police also seized a broken laptop, a hard drive belonging to Wa Lone’s younger brother, and an empty bag during the search, according to the police form and Wa Lone’s family.
The reporters have said that they had been invited to meet two police officers at a northern Yangon restaurant on Dec. 12, and were arrested almost immediately after being handed rolled up papers by the policemen, whom they had not met before.
Police officers have testified in court, however, that they were arrested after they were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who were unaware they were journalists.
Also on Wednesday, Kyaw Min, a 21-year-old waiter from the restaurant where the reporters met the two police, told the court he could not remember seeing Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Kyaw Min was the second member of the restaurant’s staff called to testify by prosecutors to say they had no knowledge of the arrest. He repeatedly told the court he could not remember details of the night of Dec. 12.
Asked why he was a witness in the case, Kyaw Min said he had come forward to make a statement after being told his restaurant was mentioned in a newspaper article about the case.
The hearing was adjourned until March 14.
(Adds dropped word “in” in second paragraph)
Reporting by Shoon Naing and Thu Thu Aung; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Alex Richardson