Two journalists face 14-year prison sentence, trial begins January 23

(YANGON, January 11, 2018)—The Government of Myanmar should immediately release and drop charges against two Reuters journalists arbitrarily detained since December 12, Fortify Rights said today. The trial against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is scheduled to begin on January 23.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested for doing their jobs and should be immediately released,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “It’s not too late for the government to unconditionally drop the charges and let them go home to their families.”

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, are charged with allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act and face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

Police arrested Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Yangon around 11:30 pm on December 12. Earlier that evening, the two journalists attended a dinner with police officials near the Battalion 8 compound north of Yangon, where they were reportedly given documents related to the situation in Rakhine State. The Ministry of Information reported on December 13 that legal action would also be taken against Police Captain Moe Yan Naing and Police Sargeant Khin Maung Lin, without explaining further.*

From December 12 to 26, the authorities held Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in incommunicado detention at an unknown location, prompting worldwide calls for their release. The two journalists are now detained at Insein Prison, reportedly with the general prison population. The Insein Court is scheduled consider their application for bail on January 23.

Following the arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Lieutenant Major Yu Naing of the Yangon Police Division filed a complaint against the two at the Htaukkyant Police Station on December 13. On January 10, the Insein Court formally accepted charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Section 3.1(c) of the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that makes it an offense to “obtain” or “collect” any material or information “calculated to be or might be or is intended to be…useful to an enemy.”

Myanmar’s Ministry of Information claimed the authorities arrested the two journalists “for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces” and that the journalists “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”

At the time of their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating a military crackdown against Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, including an alleged mass grave in Inn Din village in Maungdaw Township. On January 10, the Myanmar military admitted in a statement that security forces and villagers captured and summarily executed 10 “Bengali terrorists” and buried them in a mass grave near Inn Din, claiming, “ethnic Buddhist villagers were threatened and provoked by the terrorists.” This marks the military’s first admission of wrongdoing against Rohingya in Rakhine State since major military operations began in October 2016.

“The military’s admission demonstrates the culpability of soldiers and commanders in mass atrocities,” said Matthew Smith. “The arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw San Oo was an ugly attempt to cover their tracks.”

In a report released in November, Fortify Rights and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found “mounting evidence” of the crime of genocide by state security forces against Rohingya in Rakhine State and documented information about mass graves.

The arrest and ongoing detention of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of liberty, Fortify Rights said. Arrest and detention are unlawful when individuals are arrested or detained for engaging in activity, such as exercising the right to freedom of expression, protected under international law.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other government officials internationally have also called for the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. On January 8, former United States President Bill Clinton tweeted: “A free press is critical to a free society – the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately.”

The Government of Myanmar has severely restricted independent media access to northern Rakhine State since October 2016, when attacks by Rohingya militants prompted Myanmar-Army led “clearance operations” against Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine State. The military operations resulted in mass atrocity crimes against Rohingya men, women, and children and forced more than 700,000 civilians to flee to Bangladesh.

“The world is united in its condemnation of Myanmar authorities, and for good reason, but governments are still failing to act,” said Matthew Smith. “The U.N. Security Council should refer the situation in Rakhine State to the International Criminal Court, and the U.N. General Assembly should create a mechanism for a criminal investigation to complement existing efforts. Survivors deserve justice. Impunity in Myanmar won’t end on its own.”

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