YANGON, MYANMAR – Myanmar police sought permission from the nation’s president to go ahead with an investigation into whether two Reuters journalists had breached the Official Secrets Act only an hour after arresting them last month, a Yangon court heard on Tuesday.
The two reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in Rakhine state, where an army crackdown on insurgents since the end of August has triggered the flight of 688,000 Rohingya Muslims, according to the United Nations.
They were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon. The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two policemen they had not met before.
The prosecution’s first witness in the case, Lt. Col. Yu Naing, police captain of Yangon’s northern district, told the court that authorization was sought that evening from President Htin Kyaw’s office to proceed with a case under the Official Secrets Act.
“The accused were arrested around 9 o’clock on the 12th, and … the letter to ask permission from the president’s office was ready at 10 o’clock,” said defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung, referring to the court testimony of Yu Naing.
The authorization from the president’s office came through the next day, Dec. 13.
Another defense lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said after the hearing that it was unusual that the permission was received from the president level rather than a minister at a lower level of the government, and typically such authorizations are sought about a week into a probe, not an hour.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo last appeared in court on Jan. 10, when prosecutors sought charges against them under the Official Secrets Act, which dates back to 1923 — when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was under British rule — and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
They have been accused under Section 3.1 (c) of the act, which covers entering prohibited places, taking images or obtaining secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.”
The Ministry of Information has cited police as saying the two journalists were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces.” It has said they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”
Yu Naing repeatedly told the court “I don’t know” when asked about the circumstances of the arrest because it was only reported to him by subordinates.
He could not point to evidence that the defendants were acting for the enemy or hostile forces, the defense told reporters after the hearing.
He has previously said that the prosecution has 24 other witnesses in the case, more than half of whom are police.
A ruling on an application for bail posted by the journalists will be announced at the court’s next hearing, on Feb. 1, Khin Maung Zaw said.
The prosecution has objected to the request for bail.
In a statement, Reuters said: “We await the court’s ruling on bail. Time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release. They are innocent of any wrongdoing and should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.”
The two journalists were handcuffed as they were led into the court by police officers on either side of them.
Wa Lone smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign to the crowd there, which included relatives, reporters and diplomats from at least six countries and the United Nations and the European Union.
During a break, the reporters received fruit from family members and spoke with them. Kyaw Soe Oo briefly held his 2-year-old daughter.
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 called for the reporters to be freed.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said last week that he would work toward securing the release of the two journalists in his capacity as a member of an international advisory board on the crisis in Rakhine state.
He was hoping to raise their case with Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, during a visit to Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw, this week. Asked about his efforts, he told Reuters in Naypyitaw on Tuesday: “I am working on it.”
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