Prosecutors in a case against two Myanmar journalists from Reuters news agency accused of violating the country's colonial-era Official Secrets Act blocked a request by their lawyers on Tuesday to grant them bail, with the judge saying he would issue a decision at the next hearing on Feb. 1.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo, were formally charged on Jan. 10 with obtaining state secrets while reporting on a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state. If found guilty, they face up to 14 years in prison.
Police arrested the pair on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents about the crackdown which has driven an estimated 688,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.
At the hearing on Tuesday in Yangon’s Insein township, the defense team argued that the two men be released on bail, hopeful that the judge would grant an exception for what is otherwise not a bailable offense.
The judge, however, deferred a decision until the next hearing on Feb. 1 so that both the prosecution and the defense can question the police chief.
The prosecution will present 25 witnesses over the next three to four months, including the two officers arrested in connection with the case, said defense attorney Khin Maung Zaw.
Though the two policemen have also been taken into custody, they have yet to be charged.
Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing, the plaintiff and the police chief of Yangon’s northern district, told the court in Yangon that authorities sought approval from President Htin Kyaw’s office to proceed with a case under the Official Secrets Act an hour after the journalists' arrest, Reuters reported.
Earlier reports said Htin Kyaw, who left for a trip to Japan on the morning of Dec. 12, issued approval for police to proceed with the case against the reporters the day after their arrest.
But Yu Naing told the court that in Htin Kyaw’s absence, Vice President Myint Swe issued approval for the case to proceed against the pair.
According to section 13 of the Official Secrets Act, alleged offenses under the law can only be prosecuted with the approval of the president or another officer “empowered by the president” on his behalf.
Khin Maung Zaw, said such a speedy approval by government officials was unusual, because authorizations are usually sought about a week into an investigation and are typically issued by a lower-ranked minister, Reuters reported.
Yu Naing also repeatedly told the court he did not know the circumstances of the arrests because they were relayed to him by subordinates and that he could not provide evidence that the journalists were operating for hostile forces, according to news reports.
Than Zaw Aung, another attorney representing the two journalists, told the media that the plaintiff’s testimony about the place of reporters’ arrest was different from that which was listed in the police record, but he did not elaborate.
Thet Oo Maung told reporters at the courthouse that he believes the court will issue a fair verdict.
‘We are disappointed’
Rights groups and the Myanmar media have accused the police of entrapment and have criticized Myanmar’s civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for backpedaling on press freedom.
The government has prohibited the media from providing independent coverage of the situation in northern Rakhine state, where government soldiers have been accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown, which the United Nations and United States have have said amount to ethnic cleansing.
On Tuesday, the U.S. called on Myanmar again to release of Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo
“We are disappointed that, at a minimum, they have still not been granted bail,” the U.S. embassy in Yangon said on its Facebook page after the court hearing. “Their arrests were highly irregular and have hurt press freedom in Myanmar.
"We call again for their release so they could be with their families and return to their jobs,” the statement said.
On Monday, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who is on a visit to Myanmar, said he would press Aung San Suu Kyi to release the detained journalists, the Associated Press reported.
Richardson is visiting the country as part of a 10-member international board advising the government on how to implement the recommendations of an earlier commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, regarding the situation in ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state, Reuters reported.
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.