World News

Ruling in Myanmar Favors Jailed Journalists

Posted May 2, 2018 10:46 a.m. EDT

YANGON, Myanmar — In the first significant ruling in favor of two jailed Reuters reporters, the judge in the case announced Wednesday that he would accept evidence from a police captain who testified that an officer was ordered to entrap one of the journalists.

Both sides in the closely watched case appeared caught off guard by the ruling of the judge, U Ye Lwin, who had previously sided with the prosecution in allowing the case to proceed. The judiciary in Myanmar is not known for its independence.

“Today, the court has proved itself as a court of justice and it’s a big step,” said Khin Maung Zaw, the defense lawyer.

The police captain, Moe Yan Naing, has already paid a price for his testimony on April 20 that went against the prosecution. Since then, he has been sentenced in secret to a year in prison for an unspecified violation of the police disciplinary code and his family was evicted from police housing.

“I am surprised by the judge’s decision today,” said one of the two reporters, Wa Lone, as he was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs. “I feel sorry for Moe Yan Naing because he was sent to prison for telling the truth.”

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested Dec. 12 after they met at a Yangon restaurant with two police officers who handed them some rolled-up papers. Authorities contend that the papers contained secret information and have charged them with violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They could face 14 years in prison.

Their lawyers say they were arrested so quickly after they left the restaurant that they did not have time to look at the documents. The defense argues that they were entrapped by the police.

At the time, the reporters were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine state.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo found the victims’ mass grave and uncovered photos showing the 10 of them kneeling in a line with their hands tied before they were killed.

The massacre occurred in September as the Myanmar military and some Buddhist civilians were attacking Rohingya Muslims, killing and raping thousands and driving about 700,000 Rohingya refugees across the border into Bangladesh. The United States has declared the campaign to be ethnic cleansing.

In his April testimony, Moe Yan Naing said that a police brigadier general, Tin Ko Ko, had ordered officers to set a trap for Wa Lone and give him secret documents.

“I am revealing the truth because police of any rank must maintain their own integrity,” Moe Yan Naing told reporters after the court hearing. “It is true that they were set up.”

The captain testified that he had previously served at Inn Din village and that he met with Wa Lone in November. Moe Yan Naing also was arrested Dec. 12.

Family members said they had not been able to visit him in prison since his arrest.

“My husband did nothing wrong,” said his wife, Daw Tu Tu, crying, in an interview. “He just told the truth.”

She urged the country’s top civilian leaders, President Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor, “to help my husband and stand with the truth.” They have not commented on his case.

After the captain’s testimony, prosecutors had urged the judge to declare him a hostile witness and said he told police a different story.

In rejecting their motion, the judge said he found the captain credible.

“Moe Yan Naing is a reliable witness because he gave the statement as a police officer,” the judge said in announcing his decision.

The lead prosecutor, U Kyaw Min Aung, declined to comment after the hearing and quickly left the courtroom.

Denmark’s ambassador to Yangon, Peter Lysholt Hansen, attended the session and said afterward he was encouraged by the judge’s decision.

“It showed that there is some glimmer of hope for rule of law in this country,” he said.

He called for the immediate release of the two reporters and for an investigation into whether the general set up their arrest. The journalists’ supporters have criticized the slow pace of the trial. Court convenes only once a week and, at most, two witnesses are called. Wednesday’s hearing lasted only about 30 minutes.

The defense has yet to present its case and the hearings are expected to continue for at least a month. The judge previously denied them bail.

Wa Lone noted that Thursday is designated by the United Nations as World Press Freedom Day.

“I will celebrate World Press Freedom Day tomorrow from inside the prison,” he said. “I feel that press freedom is so important while I’m spending my time in the prison every single day.”