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Myanmar journalist detained, bailed ahead of defamation trial

By Shoon Naing

YANGON (Reuters) - One of Myanmar's best known journalists was released on bail on Monday, his lawyer said, but is set to stand trial for allegedly defaming firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu on social media.

Swe Win, chief editor of news agency Myanmar Now, was detained at Yangon's airport on Sunday evening, raising concerns about freedom of expression in the country, where four other prominent journalists have been detained in recent months.

Swe Win was remanded in custody and taken to the central city of Mandalay, where a court agreed to release him for the duration of a trial set to begin on Aug. 7, lawyer Khin Maung Myint said by telephone.

Swe Win is charged with infringing the controversial article 66(d) of Myanmar's telecommunications law over a Facebook post that cited criticism of Wirathu, the Mandalay monk infamous for fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Police had misinterpreted Swe Win's visit to the airport on Sunday as an attempt to flee, Khin Maung Myint added.

The renowned investigative reporter, who has written critically about Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, planned to fly to Bangkok but return a day later, his lawyer said.

Advocates of press freedom are alarmed that reporters are being detained in Myanmar, despite Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi taking power last year amid a transition from full military rule.

The military retain control of the police, key ministries and a quarter of lawmakers' seats. Critics say the courts also still lack independence.

Swe Win's case dates from March, when a follower of Wirathu filed a complaint against Swe Win under article 66(d) after the reporter posted on Facebook quoting a Buddhist abbot who accused Wirathu of breaking monastic rules.

Wirathu, in his own Facebook post, had publicly praised the killers of Ko Ni, a Muslim expert on constitutional law who was assassinated on Jan. 29.

Article 66(d) prescribes jail terms of up to three years for those convicted of "extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening" using a telecoms network.

After an outcry, Suu Kyi's government has proposed amendments, but free speech advocates want it repealed entirely.

Swe Win "should be in a newsroom, not behind bars," said Matthew Smith, co-founder of advocacy group Fortify Rights, adding that the situation for journalists in Myanmar was "definitely worsening".

Kyaw Min Swe, an editor at the Voice journal, is also on trial under the same provision, over a satirical article that poked fun at the military.

Three reporters are on trial in the northeast for allegedly breaking the law by attending an event hosted by an ethnic armed group.

"This is a trend, a crackdown, an attempt to silence critics," Smith said.

(Reporting by Shoon Naing Additional reporting and writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)