YANGON (Reuters) - Two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar are due to appear in court on Wednesday, when prosecutors could request that charges be filed against them over an accusation they broke the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where - according to U.N. estimates - about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
The reporters were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner.
The Ministry of Information has cited the police as saying they were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces”.
The ministry said they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media” and faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two policemen who they had not met before.
The two appeared in court for the first time on Dec. 27, when they were remanded for another two weeks. During that hearing, they were allowed to meet relatives and a lawyer for the first time since being arrested.
Government officials from some of the world’s major nations, including the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as top United Nations officials, have called for the release of the reporters.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton also urged that they be freed immediately.
“A free press is critical to a free society - the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately,” Clinton said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Clinton was U.S. president for much of the 1990s when the United States pressed Myanmar’s then military rulers to release democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest.
Suu Kyi won a 2015 election and formed a government in early 2016, although she is barred by the constitution from becoming president.
She has made no public comment on the detention of the two Reuters reporters. The government has denied that their arrests represent an attack on press freedom and Suu Kyi’s spokesman has said the case would be handled according to the law.
A government spokesman was not available for comment on Clinton’s Twitter post.
Human rights group Amnesty International also called for the immediate release of the two and for freedom of speech to be respected.
“These arrests have not happened in a vacuum, but come as authorities are increasingly restricting independent media,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Journalists and media outlets, in particular those who report on ‘sensitive topics’, are living with the constant fear of harassment, intimidation or arrest. This clampdown on freedom of speech must end.”
Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson