Concern was raised for the health of two Reuters journalists as they appeared before a court in Yangon for another hearing in their ongoing trial on charges of violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act. The two men, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been behind bars for more than three months, the vast majority of that time at Insein Prison, a penitentiary with a well-documented history of harsh living conditions.
Two civilian witnesses for the prosecution gave testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, which marked the 10th time the defendants have appeared in court since they were detained on 12 December. The two witnesses were a local administrator and 100-household head for the ward in Yangon’s Mayangone Township where authorities searched the family home of Wa Lone following his arrest.
Min Aung, the ward administrator, told the court that police had come to the local administrative office and asked him to accompany them, adding that they did not tell him where they were going nor what they were searching for. The group of about 10 policemen included some plainclothes officers, he said.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained in December on the outskirts of Yangon, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents. The pair could be imprisoned for up to 14 years under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
But as their trial continues, family members and a lawyer for the defence have indicated that — in addition to the widely voiced concerns about the case’s impact on press freedom in Burma — the defendants’ health may also be at issue.
After Wednesday’s hearing, a lawyer for the defendants Than Zaw Aung told DVB that in meetings with Kyaw Soe Oo over the past two weeks, his client’s eyes appeared to be yellowing. He speculated that it may be a symptom of liver problems.
Though Kyaw Soe Oo is provided medical treatment at Insein Prison, Than Zaw Aung said he might seek outside care, which his client has told him he would prefer.
“If Kyaw Soe Oo needs to take treatment, we will try to get permission to take treatment at a private hospital,” he said.
Nyo Nyo Aye, the younger sister of Kyaw Soe Oo, said her brother had not brought up any health concerns with her, but she added that he did appear to be ailing. “If we want to send medicine to him, we need the signature of the prison doctor,” she said.
Meanwhile Pan Ei Mon, the wife of Wa Lone, said that her husband sometimes suffered from hypertension.
There is no indication that the two Reuters reporters have been mistreated since being taken into custody, but Insein’s reputation is that of an inhospitable prison environment even under the best of circumstances.
In a statement, the Danish Embassy in Yangon said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo “were guarding the public’s right to information about the actions of those in power, information which led authorities to investigate the events on that dreadful day in Inn Din,” referring to a massacre in Rakhine State that the two journalists were reporting on at the time they were detained. Reuters last month published an investigative exposé on the incident.
Critics of the ongoing case against the two men say their arrest and prosecution under the Official Secrets Act is directly related to their reporting on conflict-stricken Rakhine State, where media access has been curtailed since late August. It was attacks by Rohingya militants on several security outposts on 25 August that prompted a fierce counter-insurgency campaign by Burmese security forces and the attendant restrictions for media and humanitarian aid groups on access to northern Rakhine State.
“They should be thanked and not punished, nor should they be subject to a dragged out trial that appears to be set to last for months while keeping Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo incarcerated, away from their families and their work,” Wednesday’s statement from the Danish Embassy added.
The next hearing in the trial has been scheduled for 21 March.