Landmark verdict on Myanmar Reuters journalists postponed

Landmark verdict on Myanmar Reuters journalists postponed

Friends of detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo stand at Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar on Monday. (Reuters photo)
Friends of detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo stand at Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar on Monday. (Reuters photo)

YANGON: The case of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar who faced a ruling Monday that could see them each jailed for up to 14 years has been postponed until Sept 3, reportedly because the judge is in poor health. The landmark case ignited global outcry after they were arrested while investigating a Rohingya massacre.

Scores of reporters and diplomats had gathered at the Yangon court to hear the verdict on journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, the culmination of eight months of hearings in a landmark case that has come to be seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

But the proceedings lasted just a few minutes, long enough for a judge standing in for Judge Ye Lwin, who has overseen the case, to announce that a ruling would be made next week.

"The judge is in poor health, so I am here to announce that the verdict is postponed to the third," said Judge Khin Maung Maung.

Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters that the stand-in judge had said the verdict was ready but it had to be pronounced by the judge assigned to the case.

Wa Lone smiled broadly and made a thumbs-up sign with his hands in cuffs as he walked into the court, with Kyaw Soe Oo just behind him.

"We are not afraid or shaken. The truth is on our side. Whatever the situation is, we will not be shaken. They cannot make us weak," Wa Lone told reporters after the brief hearing.

The two journalists have been in Myanmar's Insein prison since December after they were invited to a dinner with police in Rangoon and pounced on as they left the restaurant.

They were charged with violating a colonial-era state secrets act for possessing classified documents about Rakhine state, claims undercut by a police witness who said his superior had ordered a set-up and by arguments that the documents had been published in state media.

Reuters denied the charges and hired prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney to help, arguing the journalists were simply doing their job in working to expose abuses.

"We tried for them as much as we could the whole time," Than Zaw Aung, one of the lawyers for the journalists, told AFP a day before the verdict.

"Our journalists will be free tomorrow (Monday) if the judiciary is free and fair."

Myanmar's former junta routinely jailed and censored the media, and journalists fear the Reuters trial shows that the repressive reflexes are on the rise even under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The trial on the outskirts of the former capital has been packed with well-wishers and family, with Wa Lone flashing a trademark double thumbs up upon arrival and Kyaw Soe Oo embracing his young daughter in emotional reunions.

Wa Lone's wife gave birth to their first child this month.

- 'Baseless' allegations -

If convicted, the two Reuters journalists could each face up to 14 years in prison for violating Myanmar's state secrets law

The two consistently gave stirring defences of their work when speaking to reporters at the courthouse.

"We are not wrong and the things alleged by the prosecution are baseless," Wa Lone told the media after closing arguments last week.

Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were probing the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in the Rakhine state village of Inn Din, a week after the military launched a sweeping crackdown on members of the stateless Muslim minority.

The United Nations and Washington have labelled the campaign "ethnic cleansing", after some 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine to Bangladesh, bringing with them testimonies of rape, arson and indiscriminate killings in the northern part of the state.

The Myanmar army leadership has denied most allegations of abuses, and said they were responding to attacks on police posts.

But they conceded about a month after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested that the Inn Din massacre occurred, prompting speculation that authorities had attempted to thwart the story.

In February, Reuters published its account of the murders, which contradicts the military's claim that the killings happened after the village came under seige by Rohingya fighters.

If convicted, the two journalists can appeal and would also be eligible for a possible pardon by Myanmar's civilian president, a staunch Suu Kyi ally.

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