The third hearing in the case of a trio of detained journalists and three civilians on charges of “unlawful association” was held on Friday, with two of the prosecution’s witnesses failing to appear before the court despite being scheduled to do so.
“Major Myat Mon Aung and Lieutenant Thaw Zin did not appear in court because they are on military frontline duty,” said Maung Maung Win, a lawyer for two of the defendants, DVB journalists Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung. “Only Win Than, a civilian witness for the prosecution, testified in court.”
The Irrawaddy news outlet’s Lawi Weng is joined by non-journalists Mai Tun Aye, Sai Aung Kham and Mai Sai Nyunt in rounding out the group of six defendants facing trial.
Win Than testified Friday as a local resident who witnessed a handover of evidence in the case, by Thet Naing Oo, to police in Namhsan Township, Shan State, where the accused were initially detained on 26 June. Thet Naing Oo, an army officer, is serving as plaintiff in the case, which was moved from Namhsan to Hsipaw Township.
“The two military officials who were supposed to testify as prosecution witnesses did not appear at the court, with the excuse given that they are on military duty on a frontline,” according to Maung Maung Win, who said Win Than “was called in to replace” the two military officers scheduled to testify.
“So, we want more cooperation in the next trial session,” the lawyer added on Friday. “We need to investigate the case in an accurate and speedy manner. For the next session, we requested that the court send a summons letter to them. They cannot be absent at the next court appearance. Only one has been questioned today in court, making the court proceedings lengthy. The detention period may be dragged out longer as a result.”
Among the nine prosecution witnesses scheduled to testify in the case, the court heard testimony from Thet Naing Oo last week and Win Than on Friday.
The defendants have been charged under article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act — a colonial-era law that has been used to criminalise contact with several of Burma’s non-state armed groups — for their interactions with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
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 a drug-burning ceremony on 26 June, inviting the accused journalists to attend, to commemorate International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
Beyond Friday’s truncated trial proceedings, there was tension between the defendants’ legal team and presiding officers of the court.
“In accordance with the court manual, we requested that the judge unfasten their handcuffs, since the defendants were in front of the court. The judged asked the security officers; a police major answered that they cannot be held accountable if the defendants run away or cause harm, so the court cannot rule to unfasten the handcuffs,” Maung Maung Win said.
“Once again, when we asked the court to allow the defendants to have lunch with their family members, it was not up to the judge to decide. When he says those matters are for the security officers to decide, we had a heated conversation. Saying that they cannot permit certain arrangements for the defendants, [such as] to meet with their family members, they commanded [the defendants] to get in the police custody vehicle. Supporters and family members were furious at their actions at that time.”
The All Burma Federation of Student Unions’ (ABFSU) Mandalay chapter, former political prisoners and journalists turned out at the Hsipaw courthouse on Friday to denounce what they called an assault on press freedom.
For those they were advocating on behalf of, there appeared to be agreement.
“They want to tell all media workers, ‘Look at these men. They do their jobs as journalists and now, in prison. If you are a journalist, you will be in prison.’ This is a threat to the media. A threat to the right to information,” said Pyae Phone Aung, one of the two DVB journalists facing charges.
“Major Myat Mon Aung did not appear at the court. What does this mean for us? We need to stay in detention for another week. If five [more] military officials [scheduled as witnesses] do not appear at the court to testify, we will need to stay in prison for another five weeks,” said his DVB colleague and co-defendant Aye Nai, reflecting on prospects for a speedy trial.
“The case has been wrong from the start,” he added. “The fact that we were denied bail … this is an intentional threat to us — to stop reporting on, and contacting, the ethnic armed groups.”
The defendants’ lawyers submitted an initial bail request on 28 July at their first hearing. It was rejected on 4 August, and the defence resubmitted that bail motion on Friday. The court is due to rule on the second request on 18 August, the date of the defendants’ next hearing.
“We are not the thieves in this country. We are journalists,” said Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy. “We are working for the people. We are the Fourth Estate for the people. We never feel discouraged, nor self-pity. Our beliefs are strong. With those beliefs, we work for the people.”