YANGON (Reuters) – A Myanmar court will rule on Monday on whether to charge two Reuters reporters accused of obtaining secret documents, a decision that could either see them freed after nearly seven months in jail or move the landmark press freedom case to trial.
The court in Yangon has been holding pre-trial hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, should face charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
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.
If charges are brought against the reporters the proceedings would enter the trial phase, during which defense lawyers would summon their witnesses before the judge delivers a verdict, a process likely to take several more weeks, legal experts say.
If the judge drops the charges and dismisses the case the reporters would be released after nearly seven months in pre-trial detention.
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 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 U.N. 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 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.
Writers, press freedom and human rights activists around the world have rallied on behalf of the imprisoned reporters, with the United Nations and several Western countries calling for their release.
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson)