Burma: Court accepts testimony claiming police framed Reuters journalists
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Burma: Court accepts testimony claiming police framed Reuters journalists

TESTIMONY from a police officer claiming two Reuters reporters were framed by Burmese police was deemed credible by a Yangon court on Wednesday, dealing a blow to the prosecution in this landmark case for press freedom.

“Today, the court has proved itself as a court of justice,” defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters at the end of the hearing, adding that the ruling was “a big step” in proving the journalists’ account of events.

Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified on April 20, giving details of the hours leading up to the Dec 12 arrest of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

SEE ALSO: Burma: Police officer admits Reuters reporters were ‘set-up’

He told the court that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, who led the internal probe, ordered the police to arrange a “set-up” to ensnare the journalists. The two are facing trial for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing classified documents, a charge that carries a 14-year prison sentence.

At the time of their arrest, the reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Burma’s Rakhine state. The killings happened during an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say has sent nearly 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

Since providing his account to the courts, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in prison for violating Burma’s Police Disciplinary Act.

Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said the judge ordered police to bring Moe Yan Naing to the next hearing on May 9.

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“We need to question him more,” Judge Ye Lwin told Police Captain Myo Lwin, one of the officers who had escorted the two journalists to the courthouse, at the end of the proceedings.

Prosecutors had called Moe Yan Naing to testify against the two journalists but last week asked the court to declare him an unreliable witness after the account he gave undermined their case.

According to Moe Yan Naing’s testimony, General Tin Ko Ko instructed Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that night and to hand over “secret documents” from paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion, of which Moe Yan Naing was a member. Police were then ordered to arrest Wa Lone as he departed the restaurant where the meeting took place.

“Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko told the police members, ‘if you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail’,” said Moe Yan Naing. He told the court he witnessed the exchange.

The case has drawn widespread international attention, with many seeing this as a test for press freedom in Burma. The courtroom was packed on Wednesday, with diplomats from France, the European Union, the United States and Australia among those attending.

The Embassy of Denmark in Yangon on Tuesday called on Burma’s government to put an end to the case and “show the world that the outcome of this case is not predetermined outside the courtroom and that no one is above the law.”

Former US Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton voiced her support for the pair at a press freedom event in New York.

In a statement released Thursday – World Press Freedom Day – ARTICLE 19 called on the Burmese government to end its assault on press freedom, which the group claims has intensified under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

“Since coming to power in 2016, the NLD-led government has used repressive laws to arrest, prosecute and imprison journalists, failing to live up to its promises to reform a flawed and dated legislative framework,” the organisation said.

Additional reporting by Reuters.