A court in Myanmar will rule next week whether two journalists for the Reuters news agency will face trial for allegedly breaking the country’s secrecy laws by reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The pair has been held in custody since their arrest in December and are accused of being in possession of leaked sensitive material linked to a military crackdown in crisis-hit Rakhine state, home to Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya population.
Their detention has prompted an outcry among international human rights groups.
Defense lawyers asked the judge at a pretrial hearing Monday to drop the charges, saying the prosecution had failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove their case.
“Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were the victims of an orchestrated scheme by some members of the security forces to trap them and silence truthful reporting,” defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told the court.
The reporters were meeting with two police officers they say they had never met before in northern Yangon. The men later told relatives that they were handed some papers, then were arrested almost immediately.
Human Rights Watch again called for the release of the journalists.
“The authorities [in Myanmar] have turned to tactics long-favored by past military juntas — locking and persecuting those exposing the truth,” the rights watchdog group said.
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said this was a “critical juncture” in the case.
“Freedom of the press is essential in any democracy, and to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under these circumstances, without any proof of their having done anything unlawful, would seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech,” Adler said in a statement.