YANGON (Reuters) - A police officer who said he was part of the team that detained two Reuters reporters in Myanmar in December told a court on Wednesday that he was not familiar with police procedures for recording arrests.
Second Lieutenant Myo Ko Ko was the latest prosecution witness to give evidence in proceedings to decide whether reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, should be charged under Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing that Myo Ko Ko had conceded during cross-examination that he was not familiar with procedural rules in Myanmar’s police manual. “So he cannot be a reliable witness for the prosecution,” Khin Maung Zaw said.
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Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents, after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon.
The pair have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some papers at a restaurant by two officers they had not met before.
Asked about the location where the arrests took place, Myo Ko Ko said it was on a street lined by factories. That contradicted a map previously produced by police and entered in the court file, which showed stores and tea shops, but no factories.
Myo Ko Ko told the court he was part of the arresting team, but did not see the documents police have said the two reporters were holding in their hands.
At a previous hearing, police Major Min Thant had agreed during cross-examination that the information in the documents that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were holding had already been published in newspaper reports.
Earlier in Wednesday’s proceedings the prosecution had opposed a defense request that the police station logbook in which the arrests had been recorded should be shown to the court as evidence, arguing that it was still in daily use and could not leave the police station.
Judge Ye Lwin refused the defense’s request, saying the defense did not have the right to see the record at this stage of the proceedings.
The two 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 neighbors and soldiers.
After Reuters published its report on the killings on Feb. 8, calls have mounted for the release of the two reporters.
The United States said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that Myanmar had “the gall to blame the media” for the situation in Rakhine and demanded that the reporters be freed.
“For the crime of reporting the truth, the Burmese (Myanmar) government arrested and imprisoned the reporters,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Unhindered media access is vitally important. Journalists like the two imprisoned Reuters reporters are an indispensable source of information.”
Britain, France, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan also called at the meeting for the release of the reporters.
Myanmar U.N. Ambassador Hau Do Suan said Myanmar recognizes freedom of the press and the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine and taken refuge in neighboring Bangladesh since the Myanmar military launched a crackdown on insurgents at the end of August, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations has said the military campaign against the Rohingya may amount to genocide. Myanmar says its security forces mounted legitimate counter-insurgency clearance operations.
The next hearing at the Insein District Court in Yangon was set for Feb. 21.
Reporting by Myanmar bureau; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Alex Richardson