Myanmar

Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar denied bail

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo accused of violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum 14-year sentence.

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo was seen during a break at the court hearing in Yangon on February 1 [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

A court in Myanmar has declined to grant bail for two Reuters news agency journalists accused of violating the country's Official Secrets Act.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on coverage of the crisis in Rakhine state, where an army crackdown that started on August 25 has triggered the flight of nearly 690,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The reporters were detained on December 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon.

They told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two officers they had not met before.

Police Major Min Thant, who said he led the team of arresting officers, on Thursday submitted what he said were secret documents seized from the two reporters to the district court in Yangon.

Police have previously said the documents contained information on the disposition and operations of security forces in Rakhine's Maungdaw district.

In response, defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung submitted copies of several newspaper articles that he said showed the information in the documents was already in the public domain.

"After August 25, the government explained to the media and diplomats about what happened in Maungdaw," Than Zaw Aung said.

He said afterwards that Major Min Thant had acknowledged that when cross-examined.

"The witness admitted that the content of the documents they obtained from them is the information that the public already knew. He said the contents are same," Than Zaw Aung told Reuters.

Calls for release

At the end of the day's proceedings, the court rejected the defence's application for bail. Reading from the Official Secrets Act, Judge Ye Lwin said the alleged offence was "non-bailable", without elaborating further.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J Adler expressed disappointment at the decision and called for the journalists' prompt release.

"It has now been more than fifty days since they were arrested, and they should have the opportunity to be with their families as the hearings continue," he said in a statement.

"We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar."

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also urged the international community "to do whatever it can" to secure the release of the journalists, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday.

"The Secretary-General has expressed his concern at the erosion of the press freedom in Myanmar and he has called for the international community to do whatever it can to secure the release of the journalists and to ensure press freedom in the country," Dujarric said.

Wa Lone being escorted by police after the court hearing in Yangon [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

Relatives of the two reporters were distraught after the decision was announced.

"I cleaned my house with the hope that he might get bail, just in case," Pan Ei Mon, Wa Lone's wife, said, sobbing. "I knew that he wouldn't get bail, but still I cannot handle this."

Kyaw Soe Oo's wife, Chit Su Win, held on to him in tears, kissing him as he was being taken back to prison.

In the morning, the two journalists had been smiling and appeared in good spirits as they were brought handcuffed to the court from Yangon's notorious Insein prison. Wa Lone gave the "thumbs up" sign and Kyaw Soe Oo hugged his young daughter.

The courtroom was packed with reporters and diplomats from the US, British, Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish, French and Danish embassies as well as United Nations and European Union officials.

Different locations

Under cross-examination, police witness Min Thant also said he had updated the paperwork recording Kyaw Soe Oo's arrest and search to show he was detained outside the restaurant where the reporters say they had a meal with police officers.

Kyaw Soe Oo had refused to sign a form stating he was arrested at an intersection in northern Yangon where police say they had a checkpoint, the officer said.

The two journalists said afterwards that Min Thant was not among the officers who arrested them.

"We have never seen that police officer before," Wa Lone told reporters outside the courtroom. "We were arrested by plainclothes police."

In his testimony, Min Thant said he led the team that arrested the reporters and that he was in uniform at the time.

The court hearing is to determine whether Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will face charges under the Official Secrets Act.

The act dates back to 1923 - when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was under British rule - and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The reporters have been accused under Section 3.1 (c), which covers entering prohibited places, and taking images or obtaining secret official documents that "might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy".

The next hearing will be on February 6.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies