Three journalists and three other defendants facing charges under Burma’s Unlawful Associations Act were denied bail Friday at their second hearing in Hsipaw Township, Shan State, where the high-profile case continued and the defendants’ detention stretched into its sixth week.
The accused, including DVB journalists Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung and The Irrawaddy news outlet’s Lawi Weng, were detained on 26 June after returning from a drug-burning ceremony in northern Shan State organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group that holds territory in the area.
The six men were denied bail on the grounds that they were not residents of Hsipaw Township, where the trial is being held, and would potentially face difficulties attending future hearings if released. They appeared before the magistrate in Hsipaw for an initial hearing on 28 July.
Thet Naing Oo, an army colonel and the plaintiff in the case, gave testimony at that hearing and again on Friday.
The defendants have been charged under article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, a colonial-era piece of legislation that has been used to criminalise contact with several of Burma’s non-state armed groups.
Under the provision, anyone who “is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association or in any way assists the operations of any such association,” faces up to three years in prison.
The TNLA had held the drug-burning ceremony, inviting the journalists to attend, to commemorate International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
The trial in Hsipaw is being held up as one of the latest cases before the courts challenging press freedom in Burma, where pre-publication censorship was only abolished in 2012 after decades of tight-fisted military rule.
“The farcical charges against these journalists must be dropped immediately, they have done nothing but carry out their work peacefully,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement from the group last week ahead of their initial 28 July court appearance.
Speaking to DVB on Friday, President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said “the rule of law is very complicated in the current situation,” and that there had been communications between the executive branch and the military regarding the Hsipaw case.
However, “We don’t want to intervene in the judicial process and the court for this,” he said, referring to the court decision to deny bail on Friday.
The defendants’ next hearing is scheduled for 11 August.
With reporting by Kyaw Zayar Win in Hsipaw and Kimberley Phillips in Rangoon.