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Police witness says searched Reuters reporters’ phones without warrant

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone leaves in a police vehicle after a court hearing in Yangon on May 28, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Police in Burma examined the mobile phones of two Reuters reporters accused of possessing secret documents without a search warrant after their arrests in December, an officer told a court on Monday, in what has become a landmark press freedom case.

Prosecution witness Major Aung Kyaw San said police did not have a warrant to search the phones because the reporters were accused under the Official Secrets Act, which gave officers the power to make arrests and begin an investigation without needing prior permission from a court.

That assertion was disputed by defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, who told Reuters after the hearing that only the arrests were allowed before seeking the approval of a judge. “This is not acceptable,” he said. “Regarding [obtaining] evidence, a warrant is needed.”

Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung declined to comment.

Burmese government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. Previously, he has declined to discuss details of the proceedings or the police investigation, saying Burma’s courts were independent.

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 last week accepted as evidence printed copies of documents that Major Aung Kyaw San, a police IT expert, said were found on the reporters’ phones. The documents included alleged confidential government letters and plans for the development of an island off Burma’s west coast for tourism.

Defence lawyers had argued the documents should not be admitted as evidence because it was unclear who had access to the phones after the reporters’ arrests on Dec. 12, and that the prosecution did not explain how the 21 documents were relevant to the case.

Some of the documents came from the Facebook Messenger app, the defence said, and it was not clear the reporters themselves had accessed them.

“We don’t know anything about the documents they said they found in our phones,” Wa Lone told reporters after Monday’s hearing. “The documents can be sent automatically to Messenger.”

At the time of their arrests, 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 Rakhine 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 Yangon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.

Last month, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.

At a news conference on May 15, Police Director General Aung Win Oo dismissed the testimony as untruthful.

After his court appearance, Moe Yan Naing was sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline and his family was evicted from police housing. Police have said the eviction and his sentencing were not related to his testimony, but have declined to elaborate further.

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.

On Monday, diplomats from France, Denmark and the European Union — as well as others — observed the proceedings.

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