April 25, 2018 / 12:06 PM / 3 months ago

Myanmar court to rule if key witness credible in Reuters case

YANGON (Reuters) - A judge in Myanmar will rule next week on whether a police captain was credible when he testified that two Reuters reporters were framed, after prosecutors argued on Wednesday that the officer should be declared an unreliable witness.

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo (C) escorted by police and his wife arrives for a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Full Coverage: Detained in Myanmar

In what has become a landmark press freedom case, Captain Moe Yan Naing told the court on Friday that a senior officer had ordered police to “trap” one of the two journalists arrested in December, telling police to meet reporter Wa Lone at a restaurant in Yangon and give him “secret documents”.

Prosecutors had called Moe Yan Naing as a witness against Wa Lone, 32, and colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, but asked the court to declare him a hostile witness after his testimony appeared to undermine their case.

The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether the Reuters journalists will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

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 Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The killings took place during an army crackdown that United Nations agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

A picture of the 10 victims taken shortly before they were killed and published by Reuters in February as part of a report on the events in the village of Inn Din shows Moe Yan Naing in the background, holding a rifle.

MISCONDUCT CHARGES

At Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutors said Moe Yan Naing’s testimony was unreliable because he had told a different story to police when he was arrested. They also said Moe Yan Naing held a grudge because he is facing misconduct charges.

Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said the prosecution had not established any evidence of bias. He said the police captain’s testimony in court did not contradict earlier statements, since he had not been asked about details of the arrest of the Reuters journalists at the time of his own arrest.

“There is no reason to find that Moe Yan Naing is lying,” Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. He has declined to comment after previous hearings, saying the country’s courts are independent.

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone (C) escorted by police and his wife arrives for a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung did not respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

Moe Yan Naing, who was not in court on Wednesday, was arrested on Dec. 12, the same day Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained by police.

He told the court last week that he was one of several officers from the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion who had given interviews to Wa Lone who were interrogated that day about their dealings with the Reuters journalist.

Moe Yan Naing told the court that police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko had then ordered a lance corporal to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that night and hand over “secret documents from Battalion 8” in order to entrap him.

He testified that he had witnessed the brigadier general telling officers: “If you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail.” Reuters has been unable to contact Tin Ko Ko for comment. A police spokesman said after Friday’s hearing that the brigadier general “has no reason to do such a thing”.

FAMILY EVICTED

The police captain faces charges of violating police regulations and faces up to two years in prison and dismissal, prosecutors said. His family was evicted from their home in police housing in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw at the weekend.

The eviction became front page news in Myanmar newspapers and was shared thousands of times by Facebook users, many of whom expressed sympathy for the family’s plight. Moe Yan Naing’s wife has told local media she was devastated and surprised at the eviction. Reuters was unable to reach her for comment.

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

Judge Ye Lwin said he would rule at the next hearing on May 2 on the question of Moe Yan Naing’s credibility.

Leaving court, Wa Lone told reporters he was grateful to Moe Yan Naing for telling the truth and called for the officer’s immediate release.

“The main thing is the court has to decide truthfully and according to justice,” he said.

Senior U.N. officials, Western nations and press freedom advocates have called for the reporters’ release, and diplomats from the European Union, Britain, the United States, France and other countries were among those in the packed courtroom on Wednesday.

Reporting by Shoon Naing and Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; Writing by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Alex Richardson

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