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Colonial-era charges sought against reporters

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Reuters journalists Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo arrive at court in Yangon yesterday. Reuters

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar prosecutors sought charges yesterday against two Reuters reporters under the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, the reporters’ lawyer said.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on December 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner. Family members have said the two told them they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents by the officers they had gone to meet.

The two had worked on coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where – according to UN estimates – about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.

“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth,” Wa Lone told reporters as he and Kyaw Soe Oo were led out of the court and back to Yangon’s Insein prison after the 30-minute hearing.

Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer representing the two journalists, said the charges being sought came under Section 3.1 (c) of 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.

Section 3 covers entering prohibited places, taking images or handling secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”.

The Ministry of Information had previously cited police as saying they were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine state and security forces”. The ministry has said they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.

The prosecutor objected to an application for bail, the reporters’ lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said. The court took it under consideration and will decide at the next hearing on January 23, he said.

The government has said two police officers were also arrested for investigation under suspicion of having violated the Official Secrets Act. It has given no further information on the police arrested.

About 30 journalists were outside the court, most dressed in black as a sign of protest against the arrest of the pair. Several had the message “journalism is not a crime” or “release the arrested journalists now” on their T-shirts.

In the court, Kyaw Soe Oo embraced his wife and held his daughter for a couple of minutes. His daughter began to weep as he was escorted away.

Wa Lone’s wife gave him a few small pieces of cake that she had brought.

“I am trying to be strong in everything. I never made any mistake; I never did anything wrong,” Wa Lone said.

Distraught relatives of Kyaw Soe Oo wailed and reached out to grasp him as the two journalists were driven away from a throng of reporters after the hearing.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system. “The judge will be decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law,” he told Reuters.

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.

In one of its firmest statements yet, the European Union said that the case was an important test for the country’s commitment to developing democracy after years of military rule and called for the journalists’ release.

Observers from the UN and from several embassies, including the Netherlands, Australia and Britain were at the court.

The US embassy said it was “very disappointed” by the decision to pursue charges.

“For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs. We call for their immediate release,” it said in a statement.

The French foreign ministry called in a statement for the journalists’ immediate release and for the free access of media to Rakhine state.

Japan wants to raise the matter with the Myanmar government at appropriate opportunities, including a visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono this week, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo.

Phil Robertson of the group Human Rights Watch said that “if Aung San Suu Kyi and her government really cared about democratic reforms and governance, they could use their parliamentary majority to quickly reform this antiquated colonial law and bring it into compliance with international human rights standards”.

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