Two Reuters reporters covering military operations against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority were returned to jail Tuesday after another court appearance in a controversial “official secrets” trial. Their fourth hearing comes a day after state officials threatened to sue the Associated Press over a story exposing mass graves, deepening concerns about a crackdown on the nation’s media.
The two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were brought to the hearing in handcuffs, in a trial the news wire has called a “blatant attack” on free press. The pair have been charged with intending to expose state secrets in a case that has brought international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who leads the country’s semi-civilian government.
Before their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on military operations in Rakhine State, which have triggered the exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims. U.N. and U.S. officials have labelled the military campaign ethnic cleansing; the U.N. human rights chief suggested genocide could not be ruled out. But the government has imposed a virtual media blackout over the epicenter of the violence, barring both journalists and independent investigators from traveling to the area to verify accounts of atrocities.
The Reuters journalists told their families they were arrested on Dec. 12 moments after police, who invited the pair to dinner, gave them documents allegedly related to security operations in Rakhine. Defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung said the documents contained only public information, and, at an earlier hearing, he presented the judge with press clippings from state media to support the claim.
The two journalists, who were denied bail, have now been detained for eight weeks in the country’s notorious Insein Prison. They are facing up to 14 years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
In a separate case, state government officials told local media Monday they plan to sue the Associated Press. The news wire reported on five mass graves allegedly created after the military systematically executed Rohingya villagers. The government has denied the report, while it has previously admitted to the existence of one mass grave, where it claims “terrorists” were buried.
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