At the second proper hearing for two Reuters journalists facing charges under Burma’s Official Secrets Act, the plaintiff on Tuesday told the court that Vice President Myint Swe had signed off on the case being brought against the two men.
If true, that information is relevant because, under section 13 of the Official Secrets Act, alleged offences under the law can only be prosecuted with approval of the president or “some officer empowered by the President of the Union in this behalf.”
The two defendants were arrested on the evening of 12 December, and President Htin Kyaw departed for Tokyo to attend a healthcare forum on the morning of the same day, suggesting that Myint Swe was serving as the “officer empowered” in deciding to approve the charges against the Reuters journalists. A government spokesperson previously told Reuters that authorisation had come from the President’s Office.
Myint Swe is a retired general who was selected for his executive role in 2016 by the military bloc in Parliament.
The defendants — Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27 — arrived at the courthouse in Yangon’s Insein Township just after 10 a.m. on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s hearing, lawyers from both the defence and prosecution, as well as the presiding judge, questioned the plaintiff, Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing, who serves as police chief for Yangon’s Northern District.
The prosecution has lined up 25 witnesses to testify over the course of the trial, including two police officers also arrested in connection with the case. The exact nature of the officers’ involvement remains unclear, but they too are facing charges under the Official Secrets Act.
A lawyer for the defence also sought bail for his clients on Tuesday, but the judge deferred a decision on that motion until their next hearing, scheduled for 1 February.
“We await the court’s ruling on bail,” Reuters said in a statement. “Time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release. They are innocent of any wrongdoing and should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.”
Across town on Tuesday, Burmese journalists — many wearing black T-shirts declaring that “journalism is not a crime” — gathered near the Hledan flyover, where they distributed pamphlets to raise awareness about the two Reuters journalists’ plight.
Thuzar, a member of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, said the detention of the reporters was unjust.
“We will still be supporting Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” she said.
The wife of Wa Lone sent a letter to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month regarding the detention of her husband and his colleague, but she said she had yet to receive a reply from the state counsellor, Burma’s de facto civilian leader.
“I hope that my husband will be released,” said Pan Ei, Wa Lone’s wife.
The two Reuters journalists were detained on the outskirts of Yangon last month, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents. Under the Official Secrets Act charges they are facing, the pair could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Addressing the press after Tuesday’s hearing, Wa Lone spoke defiantly and professed his innocence.
“We will never be afraid in this case because we didn’t violate any laws,” he said.