Lawyers for two Reuters reporters jailed in Burma asked a court on Wednesday to throw out the case, saying there was insufficient evidence to support charges against the pair, who are accused of possessing secret government papers.
A court in Yangon has been holding preliminary hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
On Wednesday, defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw filed a motion to dismiss the case. The district court in northern Yangon agreed to hear arguments from prosecutors and defence lawyers on the motion on 4 April.
“Of all the prosecution witnesses that have testified and been cross-examined, no proof” of legally sufficient evidence could be made against the defendants, Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing.
“It’s suitable for the defence lawyers to ask for the release at this stage,” he said, adding that there had been discrepancies in the testimony of some witnesses. He declined to elaborate.
Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the court building before Reuters was able to put questions to him after the hearing. At previous hearings he has declined to speak to reporters.
Government and police spokespeople have declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in custody since their arrest on 12 December.
The journalists had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in a village in western Burma’s Rakhine State during a military crackdown in August, which has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
They have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.
Previous police witnesses, however, have said the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who were unaware they were journalists, and found to be holding in their hands documents relating to security force deployments in Rakhine.
During a break in proceedings, Wa Lone made an appeal to Burma’s new President Win Myint, a close ally of the leader of the civilian government Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected by Parliament on Wednesday.
“Journalists who are in the Insein Prison at the moment would like to say to the newly elected president that we are now in Insein Prison because we covered news, we are facing court because we found out the unjust things,” he told reporters. “I would like to ask the new president to bring about media freedom for the press.”
Calls to the spokesman for Burma’s civilian government seeking comment went unanswered.
Burma’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, said last month that the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents.”
Senior UN officials, Western nations and press freedom advocates have called for the release of the journalists.
Diplomats from Australia, the European Union, Denmark and the Netherlands were among those who attended Wednesday’s hearing.