YANGON – A Myanmar court postponed its ruling Monday on whether two Reuters journalists violated a state secrets law while reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, delaying the decision for a week.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, have been detained in Myanmar’s infamous Insein prison since December in the case which has ignited a global outcry.
The two journalists had been investigating the September 2017 killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims in conflict-scarred Rakhine state.
They were invited to dinner with police in Yangon, handed some documents, and then arrested as they left the meeting, accused of possessing classified material on operations in the area.
They were charged with violating the colonial-era state secrets act which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, and the expected ruling had drawn a crowd of diplomats, media and well-wishers to the court in northern Yangon.
But district judge Khin Maung Maung said in a brief hearing that the presiding judge was ill and that the verdict would be announced on September 3.
Wa Lone told reporters as he left the courthouse that they were not afraid, whatever the decision.
“We have the truth with us and we did not do anything wrong,” he said.
The case has sparked fears of eroding press freedoms under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose international reputation has been shattered over the treatment of the Rohingya.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said the delay could be tied to global developments on Myanmar.
A U.N. fact-finding mission on rights abuses in Myanmar is due to release a report Monday and the U.N. Security Council will discuss the Rohingya crisis Tuesday.
“If the verdict is today and it’s negative for the defense, it may be seen as a negative approach to democracy,” he said.
Reuters has robustly denied the charges. The defense said that the supposedly secret documents had already been published, and the prosecution case hit a hurdle when a police witness said his superior had ordered his men to entrap the pair.
The journalists said after their arrest that they were hooded and deprived of sleep in initial interrogations, which included questions about their work on Rakhine.
The news wire launched a worldwide advocacy campaign that included diplomats, celebrities and the legal assistance of prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney.
But it was not enough to keep the court in the Buddhist-majority country from pursuing the charges.
Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were probing the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village a week after the military launched a sweeping crackdown on members of the stateless Muslim minority.
The United Nations and Washington have called the campaign “ethnic cleansing,” after some 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine to Bangladesh, bringing with them testimonies of rape, arson and killings in the northern part of the state.
Myanmar rejects the charges but has admitted the killings investigated by Reuters took place and sentenced seven soldiers for the crime.
Rights groups say security forces should be investigated for crimes against humanity in Rakhine but so far only a handful of targeted sanctions have hit figures in Myanmar’s armed forces.