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Verdict in case against Myanmar Reuters journalists due next week

August 20, 2018

A Myanmar judge said Monday he would deliver a verdict next week in the trial of two Reuters reporters accused of leaking state secrets, a case which has sparked an international outcry over declining press freedom.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, could be jailed for up to 14 years if convicted of breaching an official secrets law, a charge which one of them decried as “baseless” after closing arguments Monday.

They have been detained in Myanmar’s infamous Insein prison since December after meeting police for dinner in the former capital Yangon.

The pair had been investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in conflict-scarred Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

Police allege they had secret documents relating to security operations in the state but the journalists have recounted being lured to the sit-down and entrapped.

The judge in the case said he would deliver the verdict on August 27.

“We are not wrong and the things alleged by the prosecution are baseless,” Wa Lone told reporters after the hearing, adding he was hoping soon to see his daughter, who was born this month.

The case has ignited global concern over eroding media freedoms under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in 2016 on high hopes for a democratic Myanmar.

Reuters launched a worldwide advocacy campaign and hired prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney but the case has proceeded despite the efforts.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were probing the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Rakhine in September, soon after the military launched a crackdown on militants that broadened into what the US and UN have called “ethnic cleansing”.

Some 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh where they accused Myanmar security forces of rape, arson and murder in a scorched-earth operation that razed hundreds of villages.

Myanmar denies targeting civilians but the military admitted that the September killings in the village of Inn Din did occur and convicted seven soldiers.

Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung told the court in his final argument that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had information that was sensitive to national security.

“If the documents which were found in the hands of the journalists had spread to the terrorists it would be easier for the terrorists to attack again,” he said. “The journalists should know better.”

But the prosecution’s case has been weakened by testimony from a police witness who said he was ordered to help lay an incriminating trap.

The reporters previously told the court they were presented with documents at the meeting with police and then quickly arrested.

They also testified to being hooded and deprived of sleep during initial interrogations.

The defence has highlighted the police testimony of a set-up and argued that the documents thrust on the journalists had already been published in state newspapers.

The trial has cast a harsh light on free expression in a country where reporting on the Rohingya crisis and military operations is highly sensitive.

At the trial session next Monday, “the court will give an answer on freedom of the press and rule of law,” Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters after the hearing ended.

Reuters said in a statement it was looking forward to an acquittal.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.