YANGON (Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday rejected a request for dismissal of a case against two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar after being accused of possessing secret government papers.

 

A court in Yangon has been holding preliminary hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, who turned 32 on Wednesday, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

 

Judge Ye Lwin said that there was "a proper reason" for the accusations against the two reporters and therefore "they should not be released."

 

In a statement, Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said: "We are deeply disappointed with the court’s decision."

 

He added: "We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on issues in Myanmar in an independent and impartial way. They have not violated any laws in the course of their newsgathering and were simply doing their jobs. We will continue to do all we can to secure their release."

 

Defense and prosecution lawyers made legal arguments in front of the judge  a week ago, after the defense filed a motion to have the case thrown out two weeks ago.

The reporters' lawyers had argued that the testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution was insufficient to charge the pair. They also pointed to what they said were inconsistencies in witness testimony and procedural mistakes made by the authorities during the arrest and subsequent searches.

During previous hearings one of the police witnesses told the court he had burned his notes from the time of the arrests, while a civilian witness had the location where police say the arrests were made - a key point of contention during the proceedings - written on his hand.

Another witness said he had signed the search form recording the reporters' arrests before the items seized from them had been filled in.

Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung had argued against the dismissal of the case, reiterating the prosecution's position that the documents the reporters had in their possession were secret and that the court could assume they intended to harm the security of the country.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in custody since their arrests on Dec. 12.

The journalists had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din, in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

Seven Myanmar soldiers have been sentenced to "10 years in prison with hard labor in a remote area" for participating in the massacre, the army said on Tuesday.

The two 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, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.

Police witnesses, however, have said the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who were unaware they were journalists, and found to be holding in their hands documents relating to security force deployments in Rakhine.

In its argument, the defense said the papers contained only publicly available information and could not be deemed secret.  

    

(Reporting by Shoon Nang and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Martin Howell)