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A witness for the prosecution in the case of two Reuters reporters facing charges under Burma’s Official Secrets Act injected drama into court proceedings at a hearing on Friday, telling the judge that the accused had been “trapped” when they were arrested on the outskirts of Yangon in December.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, appeared again in court on Friday, accused of having violated the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries with it a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
They were allegedly found in possession of sensitive government documents on the night of 12 December, and Yangon’s Northern District Court on Friday heard new details of the arrest and the hours leading up to it from witness for the prosecution Moe Yan Naing.
The witness, a deputy police captain who has himself been detained since December in connection with the Reuters journalists’ case, said the defendants had been entrapped at the instruction of Police Brigadier-General Tin Ko Ko, whom he claimed had been the one to supply the secret documents at the centre of the case.
Moe Yan Naing said a fellow police officer, Sergeant Naing Lin, was instructed to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone and hand over the documents. The defendants have said they were arrested shortly after meeting with two police officers at a restaurant in Yangon’s Mingalardon Township.
Following Moe Yan Naing’s testimony on Friday, lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung argued that it differed from previous testimony he had given out of court, and that he should be declared a hostile witness as a result.
The trial’s presiding judge, Ye Lwin, said he would hear arguments for and against that designation at the next hearing, scheduled for 25 April. If the judge rules in favour of the prosecution, Moe Yan Naing’s testimony will be officially struck from the record.
“The reason for speaking the truth is [to show] that police officers, of any rank, have dignity,” Moe Yan Naing told a throng of reporters outside the courthouse following Friday’s hearing.
Than Zaw Aung, a lawyer for the defendants, said his team was as surprised as anyone to hear the prosecution’s witness detailing an alleged plot to “set up” — in the words of Moe Yan Naing — the journalists now behind bars.
Though his on Friday was arguably the most consequential testimony to date in a trial that has dragged on for months, Moe Yan Naing told DVB he “did not give the documents to the journalists,” and was arrested along with Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin at the No. 8 Security Police Command on the same day as the Reuters journalists were taken into custody. Moe Yan Naing said he had not yet had an opportunity to see his family since he was detained.
He and Khin Maung Lin are also facing Official Secrets Act charges, as well as additional legal action under the Police Act.
As the potential implications of Friday’s bombshell testimony reverberated outside the courthouse following the hearing, Wa Lone appealed to Burma’s new president, Win Myint, to intervene.
“I would like to tell the president to scrutinise our case,” he said.
That case has been closely linked to a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State village of Inn Din, which the Reuters journalists were reporting on at the time of their arrest. The news agency published a lengthy exposé detailing their findings in February, which heavily implicated Burmese security forces in the killings.
Moe Yan Naing told the court on Friday that he was based in Rakhine State but was in Yangon on 11 November when he was contacted by Wa Lone to meet up and discuss the Inn Din case. They did so on 23 November, he said.
Reuters has steadfastly maintained its reporters’ innocence, and reiterated call for their immediate release following Friday’s hearing.
“Today the court finally heard the truth. One of the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted that the police received orders to plant evidence and arrest Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on false charges,” said a statement from the international news giant. “This case cannot be squared with fairness or justice, and it’s time to bring it to an end.”