UN calls for release of Reuters journalists in Myanmar

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone (second from right) and Kyaw Soe Oo (second from left) leave the court after a hearing in Yangon on Feb 1, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

GENEVA/YANGON (REUTERS) - The United Nations human rights office called on Friday (Feb 2) on Myanmar authorities to release two detained Reuters journalists, a day after they were denied bail.

"We repeat the calls for their immediate release and for the charges to be dropped," UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a Geneva news briefing. "We are alarmed at the serious erosion of freedom of expression in Myanmar."

A court in Myanmar declined to grant bail on Thursday for the two journalists accused of violating the country's Official Secrets Act, although their defence lawyer said information in documents at the centre of the case was publicly available.

Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said a police witness had accepted during court proceedings that details in documents found in the possession of the reporters when they were arrested had already been published in newspaper reports.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in Rakhine state, where an army crackdown on insurgents that started on Aug 25 has triggered the flight of nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.

The reporters were detained on Dec 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon. They have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two officers they had not met before.

Police Major Min Thant, who said he led the team of arresting officers, on Thursday submitted what he said were secret documents seized from the two reporters to the district court in Yangon.

Police have previously said the documents contained information on the disposition and operations of security forces in Rakhine's Maungdaw district.

In response, defence attorney Than Zaw Aung submitted copies of several newspaper articles that he said showed the information in the documents was already in the public domain.

"After Aug 25, the government explained to the media and diplomats about what happened in Maungdaw," Than Zaw Aung said.

He said afterwards that Major Min Thant had acknowledged that when cross-examined.

"The witness admitted that the content of the documents they obtained from them is the information that the public already knew. He said the contents are same," Than Zaw Aung told Reuters.

At the end of the day's proceedings, the court rejected the defence's application for bail. Reading from the Official Secrets Act, Judge Ye Lwin said the alleged offence was "non-bailable", without elaborating further.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J Adler expressed disappointment at the decision and called for the journalists' prompt release.

"It has now been more than fifty days since they were arrested, and they should have the opportunity to be with their families as the hearings continue," he said in a statement.

"We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar."

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