Myanmar activists urge president to release jailed Reuters journalists

A letter, signed by 163 civil society groups, also asked newly-elected Myanmar President Win Myint to 'seek justice and truth'.

FILE: The Myanmar flag flies during a march in Yangon. Picture: AFP

YANGON - Myanmar civil groups signed an open letter to the country’s president on Thursday, urging him to immediately release two Reuters reporters accused of possessing secret government papers and police officers involved in what it called an “obviously an unreasonable case”.

The letter, signed by 163 civil society groups, also asked newly-elected Myanmar President Win Myint to “seek justice and truth” and to set up an investigation committee to “reveal justice as soon as possible in order to maintain people’s trust in the judiciary sector.”

Myanmar government spokesperson Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment. He has declined to comment on the case after previous court hearings, saying the country’s courts are independent.

A court in Yangon has been holding preliminary hearings since January to decide whether Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Myanmar in December also arrested two police officers who were identified as “allegedly involved in the case”.

It has become a landmark press freedom case after a police officer told the court last week that a senior officer had ordered police to “trap” one of the two journalists arrested in December, telling police to meet reporter Wa Lone and give him “secret documents”.

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

Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, who described to the court how police planted secret documents on Reuters reporters, faces charges of violating police regulations and faces up to two years in prison and dismissal.

His family was evicted from their home in police housing at the weekend, which has become front page news and was widely shared on social media in Myanmar. Many expressed sympathy for the family’s plight.

Police have said the eviction order was not related to Moe Yan Naing’s testimony, without elaborating further.

“We believe that this is not a fair case ... What we all want is truth and justice,” said Thatoe Aung, a rights activist who helped organise the petition to the president.

Senior UN officials, Western nations and press freedom advocates have called for the reporters’ release.

A judge will rule next week on whether the police captain was credible.