Myanmar policeman testifies arrested reporters were set up

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – A Myanmar police officer testified Friday that he and several colleagues were ordered to entrap two reporters working for the Reuters news agency, dealing a major blow to the government’s case against the journalists under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been detained since Dec. 12 on charges that could get them up to 14 years in prison. The two helped cover the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where a brutal counterinsurgency operation last year drove about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh.

Police Capt. Moe Yan Naing told the court that his superior had arranged for two policemen to meet the reporters at a restaurant and hand over documents described as “important secret papers” in order to entrap them.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, center, thumbs up as he is escorted by police upon arrival at the court for trial in Yangon, Myanmar Friday, April 20, 2018. Myanmar court continues hearing on case against two Reuters journalists, arrested under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, for having restricted documents in their possession. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, counsel for the two journalists and Reuters, called on the prosecution to drop the case immediately, and if not she said the district judge should dismiss it.

“It is now clear to any impartial observer that this case is a bungled attempt to entrap two innocent young men,” she said in a statement. “The U.S., U.K., Canada, the U.N. and the European Union have already demanded the journalists’ release, and further action may follow if the case is not resolved.”

Moe Yan Naing said he and other colleagues who had been interviewed earlier by Wa Lone about their activities in Rakhine had been interrogated under the direction of Brig. Gen. Tin Ko Ko of the 8th Security Police Battalion.

Security forces in Rakhine have been accused of serious human rights violations, including rape and extrajudicial killings, against the persecuted ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Last week, Myanmar’s military announced it had sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for their part in the killings, a case covered by the two reporters.

According to the police captain, Tin Ko Ko ordered an officer who had previously spoken to Wa Lone to arrange the Dec. 12 meeting, and threatened other police officers he sent to the meeting that if they did not carry out the arrests, they would be sent to jail themselves.

“The reason why I testified the truth was because police should have their own standard and dignity,” Moe Yan Naing told reporters outside the courtroom after testifying as a prosecution witness. “Whatever I testified was the truth.”

He was able to speak to the media only briefly before being led away by a plainclothes security official. He has been under arrest since Dec. 12, apparently for having spoken to Wa Lone the month before.

Reuters issued a statement after the hearing saying that the court had “finally heard the truth.”

“One of the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted that the police received orders to plant evidence and arrest Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on false charges,” it said. “This case cannot be squared with fairness or justice, and it’s time to bring it to an end. We call for our journalists’ immediate release.”

The case has drawn international attention, with Amal Clooney, the wife of actor George Clooney, recently joining the legal team representing the jailed journalists.

Clooney said “silencing critics through false arrests and arbitrary detention flies in the face of Myanmar’s professed dedication to the rule of law and free speech, and risks lasting damage to the country’s reputation and economy.”

“But the truthful testimony of a brave witness is a step in the right direction,” she said in Friday’s statement.

Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said: “We cannot say exactly if the two journalists will be released or not, but police officer Moe Yan Naing has revealed the real case.”

“This is such a big risk for him for telling the truth,” Khin Maung Zaw said, expressing concern for his safety. “This is why you all journalists should watch closely over him because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t even know if he is coming in to the next hearing with an injured face. We don’t know.”

Other prosecution witnesses have earlier offered confusing and conflicting testimony, lending weight to the belief that the arrests were a clumsy setup by the government, which is sensitive to any reporting critical of its activities in Rakhine.

However, the judge has denied defense motions to drop the case.

“We are very surprised that the truth has been revealed, and we thought since the beginning that this case was set up,” said Than Zaw Aung, another lawyer for the reporters. “We did not expect that the police would testify like that. But this testimony will be a very strong support for the defendants.”

Wa Lone reaffirmed his innocence to journalists as he was boarding a police truck to be taken back to jail.

“The truth is coming out. I believe that truth and justice is coming,” he shouted.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay said he would not comment on the proceedings because the judiciary is independent and the trial is ongoing.

“They will decide what is right,” he said.

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