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Judge rejects request for dismissal of jailed Reuters reporters case

A judge on Wednesday rejected a request for dismissal of a case against two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar.

A court in the city of Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone (photo), who turned 32 on Wednesday, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. They are accused of possessing secret government papers.​

Judge Ye Lwin said there was “a proper reason” for the accusations against the two reporters and therefore “they should not be released”.

He said it wasn’t yet time for the motion to dismiss because he wanted to hear the eight remaining prosecution witnesses out of the 25 listed, according to the reporters’ defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.

Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed with the court’s decision.”

He added: “We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on issues in Myanmar in an independent and impartial way. They have not violated any laws in the course of their newsgathering and were simply doing their jobs. We will continue to do all we can to secure their release.”

Defence and prosecution lawyers made legal arguments in front of the judge a week ago, after the defence filed a motion to have the case thrown out two weeks ago.

The reporters’ lawyers had argued that the testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution was insufficient to charge the pair. They also pointed to what they said were inconsistencies in witness testimony and procedural mistakes made by the authorities during the arrest and subsequent searches.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in custody since their arrest on 12 December.

Wednesday’s hearing drew one of the largest crowds of diplomats and journalists since the start of the proceedings. The courtroom was packed, with diplomats from France, the European Union, the United States and Japan among those attending. Some reporters from local and international media brought birthday cake for Wa Lone who blew the candles out on the way to the courtroom.

Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon, who is pregnant with their first child, broke down in tears after the hearing, telling journalists, “Wa Lone told me ‘not to expect too much’ but I’m always expecting as his wife.”

She added: “I want them to be released as soon as possible. I’m so tired of pretending that I’m okay in front of my husband. I’m so tired. I don’t want to pretend any more.”

The two journalists had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din, in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

Seven Myanmar soldiers have been sentenced to “10 years in prison with hard labour in a remote area” for participating in the massacre, the army said on Tuesday.

“The culprits who committed the massacre were sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, the ones who reported on it - us - are accused under a law that can get us imprisoned for 14 years,” Wa Lone shouted to reporters on the steps of the court, before being pushed inside a police pickup truck.

“So, I’d like to ask the government: ‘Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom?’” ■