By Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis
YANGON (Reuters) – A witness in the case of two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar told a courtroom on Wednesday that he wrote notes on his hand about where the pair were arrested to jog his memory while giving testimony.
The location of the arrests has emerged as a key point of contention in the proceedings to decide whether Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
At issue is whether they were arrested immediately after a pre-arranged meeting with police, or at a routine traffic stop.
The reporters were detained on Dec. 12, after they said they were invited to dine with two police officers at a restaurant.
On Wednesday, prosecution witness Kyaw Shein, a civilian neighborhood-level local official, said he was present when they were arrested at a police checkpoint, several hundred meters from the restaurant.
His account of the arrest largely matched earlier testimony of police officers, who have told the court the reporters were arrested after they were stopped and searched at a checkpoint at the junction of No. 3 Main Road and Nilar Road, northern Yangon, by officers who were unaware they were journalists.
The reporters have told relatives and their lawyers they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some papers at the Saung Yeik Mon restaurant by two police officers they had not met before.
SHOW JUDGE HIS HAND
During cross examination, defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung asked Kyaw Shein to confirm that he had looked at his hand when asked by the prosecutor to state the place of arrest.
Kyaw Shein first told the court he had written the name of one of the reporters on his hand to aid his memory. Lawyer Than Zaw Aung then reached through the wooden bars of the witness stand and turned Kyaw Shein’s left hand over. The judge also asked the witness to show him his hand.
The defense lawyer then read for the record that the writing on his hand read: “Thet Oo Maung” – an alias for Wa Lone – and below it “No. 3 road and Nilar road junction”.
Asked if someone had told him to write the address where police say the arrest took place, Kyaw Shein said no. He wrote on his hand because he was “forgetful”, he said.
The government prosecutor, Kyaw Min Aung, declined to answer questions when approached by a Reuters reporter after the hearing on Wednesday. Government spokespeople have declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.
During Kyaw Shein’s testimony, the judge asked the court stenographer to record that the witness was taking a long time to respond to questions.
RESTAURANT OWNER TESTIFIES
Earlier on Wednesday, another civilian witness, Htay Htay Myint, owner of the Saung Yeik Mon, testified that she did not recognize Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. She also said she was not aware of any dinner meeting, or of any arrest outside her restaurant that night.
On cross-examination, she said she did not see the two reporters in her restaurant on Dec. 12, although she also said that from her position at the cash desk she would not have seen guests sitting at tables outside the restaurant.
The two reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men who were buried in a mass grave in northern Rakhine state after being hacked to death or shot by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers and soldiers.
The military excavated the shallow grave in December, days after the reporters’ arrests, saying they had received a tip-off. Authorities are taking action against 10 members of the security forces and six villagers, according to a government spokesman.
A handcuffed Wa Lone told reporters at the court that authorities would not have uncovered the killing if they had not got information from the reporters.
“The role of an independent media is crucial to solve the Rakhine crisis,” Wa Lone said. “If we are not reporting about the right information, the government will not know the real situation on the ground.”
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, said this month that the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
The judge adjourned the proceedings until March 7.
(Addition reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)