YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Myanmar court on Thursday denied bail for two Reuters journalists charged with illegally handling government secrets, their lawyer said.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 after police accused them of violating the country's colonial-era Official Secrets Act for acquiring "important secret papers" from two policemen. The charge is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said the presiding judge declared that bail could not be granted in cases involving the Official Secrets Act.
The case has been strongly criticized as an effort to intimidate the press, especially its coverage of the sensitive situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state where the military is accused of massive human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority. The two police officers who handed the papers to the journalists had worked in Rakhine.
"We are disappointed that the court denied bail for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. It has now been more than 50 days since they were arrested, and they should have the opportunity to be with their families as the hearings continue," Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement. "We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We continue to call for their prompt release. "
Rights and media groups have criticized Myanmar's civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi that took office two years ago for continuing to use colonial-era laws to threaten and imprison journalists. Such laws were widely used by the military junta that previously ruled the country with an iron fist to silence critics and the media.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric reiterated that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "has expressed his concern at the erosion of the press freedom in Myanmar and he has called for the international community to do whatever it can to secure the release of the journalists and to ensure press freedom in the country." He said the United Nations continues to follow developments in the case of the two journalists "extremely closely."
A prosecution witness, police officer Min Thant, testified Thursday that he conducted the arrest of the two journalists, Than Zaw Aung said. However, the journalists denied his assertion, saying they had not seen him.
The circumstances of the arrest as recounted by the journalists' supporters have raised suspicions that they were entrapped.
"The police officer testified that he and his team arrested the two journalists because they found the documents in their hands," Than Zaw Aung said. "These two journalists were given the documents while they were meeting the two police officers at a restaurant. And after the two policemen left the restaurant, the two journalists were arrested as they walked out of the restaurant."
An initial report in the state press said the two policemen who handed over the papers were arrested, but since then there has been no clear information about what, if any, punishment they face.
Wa Lone, wrists shackled as he was being driven away from the court in a police truck, managed to shout to his media colleagues.
"The policeman who testified today took an oath that he would tell the truth, but I don't think they are telling the truth," he said. "This policeman said he was part of the team that arrested us and he wore a police uniform that day, but when we got arrested, we didn't see him. Even now when we are charged and facing trial, there is no sufficient and fair investigation for us."