YANGON — Two jailed Reuters reporters on trial in Myanmar accused of obtaining secret state documents will testify in court from Monday, in a case that is seen as a test of press freedom in the fledgling democracy.
Journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were last week charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act after six months of pre-trial hearings. Both have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they face up to 14 years in prison.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will testify on Monday and Tuesday respectively – the first time since being detained in December that they have had the opportunity to fully tell their version of events in public.
The case has attracted global attention, with many governments and rights groups calling for the reporters’ release. Some diplomats and activists say it is a test of progress towards full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law. He did not answer calls seeking comment on Sunday.
At the time of their arrest, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.
The reporters 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.
The trial phase is expected to last several more weeks. The defense will call witnesses, who will testify and be cross-examined by prosecutors. Both sides will then make their final arguments and the judge is expected to deliver a verdict as early as next month.
A prosecution witness, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, told the Yangon district court in April that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant the documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.
After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline by having spoken to Wa Lone, and his family was evicted from police housing. Police have said the eviction and his sentencing were not related to his testimony.