A court in Myanmar on Wednesday refused to dismiss the testimony of a police captain who has said his superior ordered the entrapment of two Reuters reporters charged with obtaining state secrets while investigating the murders of Rohingya Muslims by the military during a crackdown in Rakhine state.
Reporters Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were taken into custody on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to the crackdown. They were formally charged on Jan. 10 with obtaining state secrets and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Captain Moe Yan Naing was arrested in December after being identified as one of two policemen involved in the case. On April 20, he testified at Yangon’s Northern District Court that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko had ordered officers to set up the two reporters.
Since he gave testimony, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in Insein Prison under the Police Discipline Law for handing classified information to the reporters, and authorities ordered his wife and three children to move out of a police housing complex.
On Wednesday, Judge Ye Lwin denied a request by prosecutors to declare Moe Yan Naing a “hostile witness” in the case against the two reporters, based on their claim that his testimony conflicted with what he had earlier told police investigators. The judge said the police captain’s testimony did not significantly differ from his earlier account.
Than Zaw Aung, a lawyer representing the two reporters, welcomed Wednesday’s ruling.
“The judge rejected a request to declare a police captain a hostile witness in the case of the two Reuters journalists accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act,” he said, referring to the charges against his clients, which relate to a law dating from British colonial times.
Than Zaw Aung said Moe Yan Naing will remain a witness in the case and that the court will hear further testimony from him next week.
Another of the reporters’ lawyers, Khin Maung Zaw, said that the court had “proven itself to be a court of justice” with Wednesday’s decision.
“Today, we were able to see a ray of light after several months—I’ve said the same to the international diplomats and reporters at the court, as well as the lawyers for Reuters, who also applauded the decision,” he said.
“We have informed Reuters officials and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has joined our legal team representing the two Reuters reporters, about it and they all expressed appreciation for the court’s decision today.”
The Associated Press quoted Thet Oo Maung saying that the ruling gave him hope “because the unfair treatment toward us and the truth will be revealed soon.”
Last week, more than 160 NGOs urged Myanmar’s government to immediately release the two Reuters journalists and set up a committee to investigate their case, following claims that the pair had been set up by police. They also called on President Win Myint to release Moe Yan Naing.
New York-based Asia Society announced last week that it had named the reporters finalists for its 2018 Osborn Elliot Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia, citing the pair’s coverage of the anti-Rohingya violence which it called “courageous and risk-taking in its real-time chronicling of mass atrocities.”
On Monday, Colonel Myo Thu Soe told The Irrawaddy that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko would face no disciplinary action for allegedly masterminding the reporters’ entrapment and that the claim would not be investigated.
Wednesday’s ruling came a day after 15 permanent envoys from the United Nations Security Council concluded a two-day visit to northern Rakhine state and urged Myanmar to conduct what they called a “proper” investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya.
Thousands of Rohingya were killed during the crackdown launched late last August in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by Muslim militants, while others say their communities endured torture, rape, and arson at the hands of security forces.
Both the U.N. and United States have said that the campaign, which forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to safety in Bangladesh, amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Late on Tuesday, Rakhine state government secretary Tin Maung Swe told reporters at the airport in the Rakhine capital Sittwe that “disciplinary action” had been taken against members of the security forces over the crackdown.
“Some members of the security forces acted in the wrong,” he said, adding that some of the perpetrators were policemen and others were soldiers.
“No one is above the law, and we have already declared what we have done to the international community,” he added, without providing further details.
But Tin Maung Swe dismissed claims of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state, saying that deaths in the region came as the result of “self-defense” against “terrorists who entered villages and attacked” residents.
“There is significant evidence which shows terrorists killed many village heads, minority ethnic people and Hindus, but the international media have described the situation as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and they are reporting fake news,” he said.
Following the conclusion of the visit by the U.N. Security Council envoys, Tin Maung Swe told RFA that the delegation “got to know about what really happened in Rakhine state” during what observers have said was a highly choreographed trip to the region, and suggested that “their attitude will change.”
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win, Khet Mar and Min Thein Aung. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.