YANGON: A Myanmar judge said Wednesday he would decide next week on whether to throw out a case against two Reuters journalists who were arrested while reporting on military abuses against Rohingya Muslims.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, could face up to 14 years in prison on charges of possessing classified documents under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Their plight has triggered global alarm over worsening media freedoms in Myanmar and government efforts to restrict reporting on northern Rakhine state, where troops are accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority.
Last week the journalists’ lawyers asked the court to drop the case, which is still in a pre-trial hearing phase, saying there was not enough evidence to charge the pair.
On Wednesday defence and prosecution teams presented arguments on the motion to a courtroom packed with relatives, media and diplomats. “I’m going to give a decision on Wednesday, April 11th,” said Judge Ye Lwin.
At the time of their arrest four months ago the reporters were investigating the killing by security forces and ethnic Rakhine locals of 10 unarmed Rohingya Muslim men.
The army later acknowledged that security officers took part in the extrajudicial killings of the men, who were in custody at the time, in Inn Din village and vowed to take action against those responsible.
But it has denied any other abuses against the Rohingya, rejecting allegations from the UN that troops are guilty of ethnic cleansing and possible genocide in a campaign that has expelled 700,000 Rohingya from the country since August.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of the crackdown alone.
The journalists, who have been detained since their arrest on December 12, have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Their families say they were set up by two policemen who invited them for dinner and gave them the documents in question before their arrest. “I haven’t done anything wrong. That’s why I believe I will be free soon,” Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters after the hearing.
Sean Bain, who was observing the trial for the International Commission of Jurists, called on the government to order prosecutors to “immediately drop these spurious charges.”
“Each adjournment wrongfully extends their detention,” he told AFP, adding that “three months of hearings have produced no credible evidence” against the journalists.
Calls for the pair’s release have poured in from around the globe, including from former US president Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The case received another publicity boost last week after British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Clooney announced she would represent the pair.
She was not in court on Wednesday.