By Antoni Slodkowski and Shoon Naing
YANGON (Reuters) – A court in Myanmar on Monday charged two jailed Reuters journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, telling the judge they had “followed journalistic ethics.”
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo had committed no crime and would testify to their innocence in court.
“Although we are charged, we are not guilty,” he said, in handcuffs, as officials ushered him into a police truck. “We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this.”
(Follow latest updates on detained reporters https://www.reuters.com/subjects/myanmar-reporters.)
Chief prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the courthouse before reporters were able to ask him questions.
The case has attracted global attention. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say it is a test of progress towards full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the decision was a “major setback” for press freedom in Myanmar.
“A free press is fundamental to democracy. Journalists not only keep citizens informed but they hold leaders accountable,” Haley said in a statement. “We call on the Burmese government to allow these journalists to return to their families and continue their work.”
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the case against the reporters “baseless”.
“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” he said in a statement.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment after the court ruling on Monday. He has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
The reporters’ families, including Kyaw Soe Oo’s two-year-old daughter and Wa Lone’s pregnant wife, sat close to them in the courtroom packed with diplomats and journalists.
The judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under section 3.1 (c) of the act to probe the prosecution’s allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security.
The case was adjourned until July 16.
Proceedings will now enter the trial phase. Defense lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict in a process likely to take several weeks, according to legal experts.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said both reporters would be called to testify as witnesses at the next hearing.
“Naturally, I’m not satisfied … not happy,” he told reporters when asked about the court’s decision. “But I’m not losing hope. In the end we will have a happy ending.”
Earlier this month, defense lawyers said the journalists were arrested in a sting operation by the police that was aimed at interfering with their reporting.
At the same July 2 hearing, prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung said documents they had in their hands when they were arrested detailed the movements of security forces, while further documents found on their mobile phones ranged from confidential to top secret.
At the time of their arrest in December, 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.
In April, 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.
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.
(Reporting by Shoon Naing and Antoni Slodkowski; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis, Kanupriya Kapoor and Aye Min Thant; Editing by Alex Richardson, Toni Reinhold)