By Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis
YANGON (Reuters) – The first civilian to testify in the case of two Reuters reporters accused of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act contradicted police and prosecutors on Wednesday about where the pair were arrested, a defense lawyer said.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on Dec. 12 for allegedly possessing confidential documents, after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in the northern outskirts of Yangon.
Win Lwin Oo, 50, a neighborhood chief from another part of north Yangon, was the latest prosecution witness to give evidence in proceedings to decide whether they should be charged under the colonial-era law.
He said he was accompanying police as they conducted traffic searches and witnessed the reporters’ detention.
The exact location of the arrests has emerged as a point of contention in the proceedings.
The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some papers at the Saung Yeik Mon restaurant by two police officers they had not met before.
The prosecution and earlier police witnesses have testified the journalists were arrested after they were stopped and searched at a checkpoint at the junction of No. 3 Main Road and Nilar Road, several hundred metres from the restaurant, by officers who were unaware they were journalists. The prosecution has made no reference to a meeting with police prior to their detention.
“We kept arguing about it and during the examination today the witness Win Lwin Oo said it is not No.3 road but Sin Gyi restaurant, which is beside Saung Yeik Mon,” defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing.
Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung declined to answer questions from reporters. Government spokespeople have routinely declined to comment on the details of the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.
Earlier on Wednesday, police corporal Kyaw Lwin gave evidence about a discrepancy in police paperwork. He said Kyaw Soe Oo’s arrest was recorded as taking place in front of Saung Yeik Mon because the journalist had otherwise refused to sign the form, but like the other police insisted they were arrested at the checkpoint.
At previous hearings, the court has been told that one police officer had burned his notes from the time of the arrest. Another police witness said he was not familiar with police procedures for recording arrests.
Another police witness, Major Min Thant, agreed that the information in the documents Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were holding in their hands at the time of their arrest had already been published in newspaper reports.
On Wednesday, as the reporters left court during the lunch break, Wa Lone, speaking in English, told reporters: “I should be in the newsroom. I am a journalist. I never did anything wrong. So, I am trying to be strong.”
The two reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men who were buried in a mass grave in northern Rakhine state after being hacked to death or shot by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist neighbours and soldiers.
After Reuters published its report on the killings on Feb. 8, calls have mounted for the release of the two reporters.
The United States told a recent meeting of the United Nations Security Council that Myanmar had “the gall to blame the media” for the situation in Rakhine and demanded that the reporters be freed.
Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Hau Do Suan said the country recognises freedom of the press and the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine and taken refuge in neighboring Bangladesh since the Myanmar military launched a crackdown on insurgents at the end of August, according to the U.N.
The U.N. has said the military campaign against the Rohingya may amount to genocide. Myanmar says its security forces mounted legitimate counter-insurgency clearance operations.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the international community “to do whatever it can” to secure the release of two Reuters journalists.
The date of the next hearing was set for Feb. 28.
(Reporting by Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski and Thu Thu Aung; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Alex Richardson)