YANGON — A Myanmar judge will rule on Tuesday whether to allow the submission of evidence police say they obtained from the mobile phones of two Reuters reporters arrested in December for alleged possession of secret documents.
The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone 32, and his Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
On Monday, Judge Ye Lwin ordered Major Aung Kyaw San, a police IT expert summoned by the prosecution, to demonstrate at Tuesday’s hearing how he says he extracted data from phones taken from the reporters after their Dec. 12 arrest.
The order was made after Aung Kyaw San read out extracts from documents he said had been stored on the devices. Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung then asked the judge to accept printed copies of the documents as evidence in what has become a landmark free speech case in Myanmar.
Defense lawyers objected, arguing the police major had not demonstrated the documents had indeed been extracted from the reporters’ phones, prompting the judge to rule that Aung Kyaw San must give additional testimony before they could be admitted as evidence.
“Tomorrow, that expert witness will come and by looking at the phone handset and laptop that were seized from the defendants, he will explain how he extracted (the documents) … whether it’s technically correct,” defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told Reuters after the hearing.
Aung Kyaw San did not say how the 21 documents he identified in court – some allegedly confidential government letters, others documents related to a tourism development plan on an island off Myanmar’s western coast – were relevant to the case.
“I couldn’t understand the situation because they are submitting unknown documents which we don’t even know,” said Wa Lone, standing on the steps of the court before being shoved to the back of a police pick-up truck.
Prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung declined to comment after Monday’s hearing.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. Previously, he has said Myanmar courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
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 an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to 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, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.
Last month, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.
Senior police officials have dismissed the testimony as untruthful.
After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline and his family was evicted from police housing. Police have said the eviction and his sentencing were not related to his testimony.
Global advocates for press freedom, human rights activists, as well the United Nations and several Western countries, have called for the release of the Reuters journalists.
On Monday, diplomats from Denmark, France and the European Union – as well as others – observed the proceedings.