Myanmar judge rules case against jailed Reuters journalists will go ahead

A judge on Wednesday rejected a request for dismissal of a case against two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar after being accused of possessing secret government papers.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on the killing of of 10 Rohingya men

Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo were accused of possessing secret government papers and charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. A police officer called as a prosecution witness testified his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists. (Antoni Slodkowski/Reuters)

A judge on Wednesday rejected a request for dismissal of a case against two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar after being accused of possessing secret government papers.

A court in Yangon has been holding preliminary hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, who turned 32 on Wednesday, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Judge Ye Lwin said that there was "a proper reason" for the accusations against the two reporters and therefore "they should not be released."

In a statement, Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said: "We are deeply disappointed with the court's decision."

He added: "We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on issues in Myanmar in an independent and impartial way. They have not violated any laws in the course of their newsgathering and were simply doing their jobs. We will continue to do all we can to secure their release."

Defence and prosecution lawyers made legal arguments in front of the judge a week ago, after the defence filed a motion to have the case thrown out two weeks ago.

The reporters' lawyers had argued that the testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution was insufficient to charge the pair. They also pointed to what they said were inconsistencies in witness testimony and procedural mistakes made by the authorities during the arrest and subsequent searches.

Pan Ei Mon, wife of detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone, reacts after a judge refused to dismiss the case against her husband. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

During previous hearings, one of the police witnesses told the court he had burned his notes from the time of the arrests, while a civilian witness had the location where police say the arrests were made — a key point of contention during the proceedings — written on his hand.

Another witness said he had signed the search form recording the reporters' arrests before the items seized from them had been filled in.

Investigating death of Rohingya men

Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung had argued against the dismissal of the case, reiterating the prosecution's position that the documents the reporters had in their possession were secret and that the court could assume they intended to harm the security of the country.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in custody since their arrests on Dec. 12.

Wa Lone's wife Pan Ei Mon, who is pregnant with their first child, broke down in tears after the hearing, telling journalists, "Wa Lone told me 'not to expect too much' but I'm always expecting as his wife."

She added: "I want them to be released as soon as possible. I'm so tired of pretending that I'm okay in front of my husband. I'm so tired. I don't want to pretend any more."

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone talks to media while being escorted by police after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The two Reuters journalists had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din, in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

Seven Myanmar soldiers have been sentenced to "10 years in prison with hard labour in a remote area" for participating in the massacre, the army said on Tuesday.

"The culprits who committed the massacre were sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, the ones who reported on it — us — are accused under a law that can get us imprisoned for 14 years," Wa Lone shouted to reporters on the steps of the court, before being pushed inside a police pickup truck.

"So, I'd like to ask the government: 'Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom?'"

The two 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.

Police witnesses, however, have said the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who were unaware they were journalists, and found to be holding in their hands documents relating to security force deployments in Rakhine.

In its argument, the defence said the papers contained only publicly available information and could not be deemed secret.