YANGON (Reuters) - A court in Myanmar declined to grant bail on Thursday for two Reuters journalists accused of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act, although their defence lawyer said information in documents at the centre of the case was publicly available.
Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said a police witness had accepted during court proceedings that details in documents found in the possession of the reporters when they were arrested had already been published in newspaper reports.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in Rakhine state, where an army crackdown on insurgents that started on Aug. 25 has triggered the flight of nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
The reporters were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon. They have 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 attorney 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 Aug. 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.
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.”
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 U.S., British, Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish, French and Danish embassies as well as United Nations and European Union officials.
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 Feb. 6.
On Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the international community “to do whatever it can” to secure the release of two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar and ensure press freedom in the country, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
But Myanmar told the United Nations Security Council not to visit during February this year because it was “not the right time,” Kuwait’s U.N. Ambassador Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi said on Thursday, adding that the country did not completely reject the proposed trip.
“They did not reject it. They just think this is not the right time for the visit,” Al-Otaibi said.
“They are currently organising a visit for the diplomatic corps in Myanmar to the Rakhine state. They also said that tensions are high in the Rakhine state at the moment, these were the reasons given to us by the Myanmar authorities,” he said.
Reporting by Myanmar bureau; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Alex Richardson and Clive McKeef