YANGON (Reuters) - Two Reuters journalists who have been detained in Myanmar for the past two weeks were remanded in custody for a further two weeks on Wednesday as a probe continues into allegations they breached the nation’s Official Secrets Act.
Judge Ohn Myint granted the 14-day extension in the case of the journalists, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, at the request of the police, who then took them to Yangon’s Insein prison. They were previously being held in a police compound.
When they appeared at the Mingaladon court for the proceedings, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were allowed to meet their families and their lawyer for the first time since their arrest.
The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where - according to United Nations’ estimates - about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
They were detained on Dec 12 after they had been invited to meet police officials over dinner. The Ministry of Information has said they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media” and faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The two journalists said they had not been mistreated in custody.
“The situation is okay,” Wa Lone said after the hearing.
“We will face it the best we can because we have never done anything wrong,” he said. “We have never violated the media law nor ethics. We will continue to do our best.”
A Reuters spokesperson said they should be freed.
“These two journalists are being held for simply doing their jobs and have done nothing wrong. It is time for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to be released,” the spokesperson said.
About 100 journalists, lawyers and farmers held a protest in the town of Pyay, 290 km (180 miles) north of Yangon, to demand the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, one of the participants said.
Members of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists sat draped in chains in a public square in the center of the town and wrote the names of the two arrested reporters on their palms, an often used symbol in Myanmar of solidarity with those in jail.
Government officials from some of the world’s major nations, including the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as top U.N. officials, have previously called for their release.
Dozens of reporters and cameramen were outside the courthouse in a northern district of Yangon for the appearance of the two journalists. They were brought in a white van, rather than a police truck, dressed in casual clothes and were not handcuffed.
Their lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, who has been retained by Reuters, also said the two had only been doing their job as journalists.
“They are being accused under this charge while doing their work as media,” he told reporters.
Lieutenant Colonel Myint Htwe, a senior staff officer from the Yangon Police Division, said: “We took action because they committed the crime. It needs to be solved in court.”
Only their lawyer and the families of the two journalists, along with police and government lawyers, were allowed into the courtroom. The families were later allowed to travel in the van as the two journalists were taken to prison.
“I believe that he didn’t commit any crime,” Pan Ei Mon, Wa Lone’s wife, told Reuters. “I would like to request the government to consider releasing them.”
Nyo Nyo Aye, a sister of Kyaw Soe Oo, said her brother told her he had not committed any offense. “I believe that he can come home soon,” she said.
Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; additional reporting by Shoon Naing and Thu Thu Aung,; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Martin Howell