By Simon Lewis and Shoon Naing
YANGON (Reuters) – Some international observers urged Myanmar on Wednesday not to drag out legal proceedings against two Reuters journalists, as they appeared in court for the 10th time since they were arrested in December and accused of possessing secret government papers.
A Yangon court began preliminary hearings in January to decide whether reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, will face charges under the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Denmark’s embassy in Yangon, which has closely followed the case, said ahead of the latest hearing that the journalists should be “thanked and not punished” for their reporting on northern Rakhine state – where they found evidence of security forces’ involvement in the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men.
“Nor should they be subject to a dragged out trial that appears to be set to last for months while keeping Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo incarcerated, away from their families and their work,” the embassy said in a statement.
Two civilians that police brought to witness a search of Wa Lone’s family home the evening after the reporters were arrested gave testimony on Wednesday.
Min Min, a neighbourhood official in north Yangon, told the court he joined nine or 10 policemen searching the residence and signed a form to confirm a laptop with a charger and a bag, a hard drive and a notebook were discovered there.
Asked by defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung during cross-examination whether any government papers were discovered in the search, he said no.
Min Aung, a ward administrator who joined the search and gave testimony, said he could not remember seeing police find official documents.
Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the court building before Reuters was able to put questions to him after the hearing. Government spokespeople have declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing court proceedings.
The government prosecutor has now called 12 of 25 listed witnesses to hearings that have been taking place weekly. The court agreed to hear three witnesses at its next session on March 21.
HELD IN CUSTODY
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been in custody since their arrest on Dec. 12.
The pair had been invited by police officers to a restaurant in northern Yangon. They have told family members they were arrested by plainclothes officers almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers by the policemen, whom they had not met before.
Previous police witnesses have said they 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.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, wearing handcuffs, were rushed in and out of court by police on Wednesday, giving them only a brief opportunity to talk to their families or reporters. Kyaw Soe Oo was prevented by police from hugging his young daughter.
Myanmar has denied accusations the two reporters were targeted over their reporting in Rakhine, where a security response to insurgent attacks has seen nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee to Bangladesh since August.
Last week, responding to comments from U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein who said he strongly suspected “acts of genocide” had taken place in Rakhine, Myanmar’s national security advisor Thaung Tun said the country wanted to see “clear evidence” to support such allegations.
Sean Bain, a legal adviser in Myanmar for the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights group made up of 60 senior international judges, lawyers and legal academics, called for the case against the reporters to be dropped.
“The government has asked for ‘concrete evidence’ of alleged rights violations in Rakhine State,” said Bain, who attended Wednesday’s hearing. “These journalists produced it, but they remain imprisoned.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Shoon Naing; Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Alex Richardson)