A Myanmar judge ruled Wednesday that two Reuters reporters who documented a massacre of Rohingya Muslims will face trial for violating the Official Secrets Act after they were arrested with papers handed to them by the police.
Judge Ye Lwin, who heard testimony from 17 prosecution witnesses over three months of preliminary hearings, ruled that there was enough evidence to proceed with the case against the reporters: U Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, and U Wa Lone, who turned 32 on Wednesday.
In a case that has provoked international condemnation, the two were arrested Dec. 12 while they were investigating the September massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians in the Rakhine State village of Inn Din. The massacre occurred during violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military and local Buddhist mobs that drove hundreds of thousands of refugees into Bangladesh in what is broadly seen as calculated ethnic cleansing.
In uncovering the massacre, the two reporters obtained photos of the 10 victims kneeling before their execution with their hands tied behind their backs. They also found the mass grave where the victims were buried.
The judge’s decision in Yangon came barely 12 hours after the military announced that four army officers and three soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for their roles in the massacre.
By contrast, Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo face up to 14 years in prison under the colonial-era secrets act.
“Why do soldiers, who are found guilty of murder, get 10 years while we journalists, who exposed the murder, face 14 years in prison?” Mr. Wa Lone asked a crowd of supporters and reporters as he was being taken back to Insein Prison after the hearing.
“I want to ask the government: Where is the truth and justice, where is the democracy and freedom?”
The ruling came after months of legal ordeal for the reporters, who have been kept in prison while a long series of weekly evidentiary hearings played out.
The reporters were arrested after meeting at a Yangon restaurant with two police officers, who gave them some rolled-up papers. Their lawyers say they were arrested so quickly that they never had a chance to look at them.
The prosecution contends that the papers contained secret information and the fact that the reporters possessed them showed their intent to undermine the country’s security.
“We are deeply disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ president and editor in chief, in a statement after the ruling. “We will continue to do all we can to secure their release.”
In appealing last week for dismissal of the charges, the defense argued that the prosecution’s witnesses gave conflicting testimony about the arrests and never established that a crime occurred.
One witness acknowledged that the information in the supposedly secret documents had already been reported in the news media by the time of the arrests.
The prosecution of the two Reuters reporters is part of a larger crackdown on free expression by the government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto head of the government.
The prosecution of the pair was sanctioned by her government and is overseen by the attorney general she appointed, a former military officer.
In a separate case last month, a former child soldier, Aung Ko Htway, was sentenced to two years at hard labor for telling the story of his abduction by the military at age 14 and his forced military service. He did so in an interview with Radio Free Asia.
Two ethnic Kachin Baptist community leaders, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, were given sentences of 27 and 51 months in October for helping reporters document damage from military airstrikes on civilian sites in the eastern state of Shan.
After the country’s new president, U Win Myint, took office last month, Mr. Wa Lone asked him to intervene and order his case dismissed. The president, who urged the media in his inaugural address to “serve as the ears and eyes of the public,” has not responded publicly to Mr. Wa Lone’s request.
At Wednesday’s hearing, family members, journalists and foreign diplomats crowded into the small, colonial-era courtroom, which holds only about 50 spectators. Nearly 100 backers and reporters who couldn’t get into the courtroom gathered outside.
Friends brought two birthday cakes in the hope of celebrating Mr. Wa Lone’s birthday and his freedom. Instead, they expressed their dismay after the ruling went the other way.
Denmark’s ambassador to Myanmar, Peter Lysholt Hansen, who has closely followed the case, issued a statement urging the government to release the reporters, who he said were only doing their job.
“Without their investigation, the massacre in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State would never have been uncovered,” he said. “They should be thanked and not punished.”
The European Union, which also has been monitoring the proceedings, said the reporters’ continued imprisonment is unjustified and amounts to “serious intimidation against journalists doing their jobs in Myanmar.”
More than 80 percent of government documents are considered confidential or secret under the Official Secrets Act, according to U Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, an independent organization that advocates for the news media.
He said the judge’s ruling demonstrates the influence that the military exerts over the judiciary and society at large.
“Since the beginning, there has been no evidence to prove they are guilty,” he said. “But today’s decision shows the overwhelming power of the military. It seems that they have already decided to punish them.”