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Reuters Reporters Charged With Violating Myanmar's Colonial-Era Secrets Act

YANGON (Reuters) – A court in Myanmar on Monday charged two jailed Reuters journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.

Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, telling the judge they had “followed journalistic ethics”.

Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo had committed no crime and would testify to their innocence in court.

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar,

Ann Wang / Reuters

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday.

“Although we are charged, we are not guilty,” he said, in handcuffs, as officials ushered him into a police truck. “We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this.”

Chief prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the courthouse before reporters were able to ask him questions.

The case has attracted global attention. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say it is a test of progress toward full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.

The United States embassy in Yangon said it was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision.

“‎The Myanmar authorities should allow the journalists to return to their jobs and families,” it said in a post on Facebook. “Today’s decision is a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”

Journalist Wa Lone gives two thumbs up while being escorted by police into a court hearing back in February. Fellow journalis

Jorge Silva / Reuters

Journalist Wa Lone gives two thumbs up while being escorted by police into a court hearing back in February. Fellow journalist Kyaw Soe Oo follows behind him, also in handcuffs.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the case against the reporters “baseless”.

“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” he said in a statement.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment after the court ruling on Monday. He has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.

TRIAL PHASE

The reporters’ families, including Kyaw Soe Oo’s two-year-old daughter and Wa Lone’s pregnant wife, sat close to them in the courtroom packed with diplomats and journalists.

The judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under section 3.1 (c) of the act to probe the prosecution’s allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security.

The case was adjourned until July 16.

Proceedings will now enter the trial phase. Defense lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict in a process likely to take several weeks, according to legal experts.

Pan Ei Mon and Chit Su, wives of detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, comfort each other after a court heari

Jorge Silva / Reuters

Pan Ei Mon and Chit Su, wives of detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, comfort each other after a court hearing in February.

Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said both reporters would be called to testify as witnesses at the next hearing.

“Naturally, I’m not satisfied…not happy,” he told reporters when asked about the court’s decision. “But I’m not losing hope. In the end we will have a happy ending.”

Earlier this month, defense lawyers said the journalists were arrested in a sting operation by the police that was aimed at interfering with their reporting.

At the same July 2 hearing, prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung said documents they had in their hands when they were arrested detailed the movements of security forces, while further documents found on their mobile phones ranged from confidential to top secret.

The two journalists, seen at the Reuters office in Yangon in 2017, were working on an investigation into the killing of

Antoni Slodkowski / Reuters

The two journalists, seen at the Reuters office in Yangon in 2017, were working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during a military crackdown when they were arrested.

At the time of their arrest in December, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before.

In April, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.

After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline by having spoken to Wa Lone, and his family was evicted from police housing. Police have said the eviction and his sentencing were not related to his testimony.

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