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Police witness no-show as Reuters reporters mark six months in detention

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo walks escorted by police during a break at a court hearing in Rangoon, 4 June, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS)

 A Burmese police investigator failed to show up at court on Tuesday to testify as a prosecution witness against two Reuters reporters who were arrested in December and accused of possessing secret government papers.

Police Captain Myo Lwin, one of the officers who escorted the two journalists to the courthouse, said the key police witness Major Tin Win Maung was not present because the officer was “investigating two cases” in central Burma.

The police major conducted the inquiry after the journalists were arrested on 12 December. They have now spent six months in detention.

“Six months is too long, but we are not depressed … They can’t destroy us,” reporter Wa Lone told reporters after the proceedings were swiftly adjourned. “I will always be a journalist.”

In what has become a landmark press freedom case, the court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone, 32, and his Reuters colleague 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 adjourned the hearing until Monday, when he again summoned Major Tin Win Maung to appear.

Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung declined to comment after Tuesday’s proceedings.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters by phone that Burmese courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law. He said the two reporters were being treated fairly and their rights were protected.

In an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK last week, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the two reporters “were arrested because they broke the Official Secret Act.”

“We cannot say now whether they were guilty or not. That will be up to judiciary,” Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted as saying.

At the time of their arrest, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Burma’s Arakan State. The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Rangoon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.

Global advocates for press freedom, human rights activists, as well the United Nations and several Western countries, have called for the release of the Reuters journalists.

“Six months in jail for reporting the truth. Today, I reiterate the EU’s appeal for their immediate release,” Kristian Schmidt, the European Union’s representative in Rangoon, said in a Twitter message.

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