A Myanmar police officer who said two Reuters reporters accused of breaching the country’s official secrets act were framed by authorities will continue to testify in their trial.
Last month, Captain Moe Yan Naing shocked a Yangon court by claiming he witnessed a plot by senior police to frame Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
On Wednesday, Judge Ye Lwin rejected a request from prosecutors to classify the police captain as a hostile witness, which would have barred him from testifying.
“Today, the court has proved itself as a court of justice,” Khin Maung Zaw, the defense lawyer for the two Reuters reporters said at the end of the hearing, according to the news agency. He added that the ruling was “a big step” because Moe Yan Naing’s testimony supported the accounts given by the reporters.
The judge demanded that Moe Yan Naing, who was sentenced last month to an undisclosed prison term for violating a law governing police actions, attend next week’s pre-trial hearing.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested late last year while working on stories about the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence and official persecution.
Arrested for journalism
A court in the former capital of Yangon is currently holding hearings to decide whether the two reporters will be charged under the colonial era secrecy law, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Reuters published a special investigation that carried the Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s bylines earlier this year.
It documented a massacre of 10 Rohingya men reportedly carried out by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops. Reuters described the groundbreaking report as the first time that soldiers and paramilitary police had been implicated in testimony from security personnel.
The report used photographs, reporting and interviews conducted in Myanmar and Bangladesh to reconstruct the final moments of the dead men, who were fishermen, shopkeepers, teenage students and a religious teacher.
The Myanmar military has since admitted its forces had a role in the killings, and jailed seven soldiers. Police officers and civilians involved in the incident are currently facing trial.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s imprisonment has attracted further international criticism of Myanmar’s government and the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has already facing a loss in support for her handling of the Rohingya issue.
In March, prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney agreed to represent the two reporters, saying it was “beyond doubt that (they) are innocent.”
“The outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech,” she said.
Earlier this week, a delegation from United Nations Security Council member states met with General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Myanmar armed forces.
The army, which has a long record of human rights abuses, has been blamed for causing the refugee crisis, after the military launched an intense crackdown in response to an attack by Rohingya militant groups. The UN and US has described it as ethnic cleansing.
Speaking to UN officials, Min Aung Hlaing said the military works “according to international laws and procedures,” and blamed the present situation on “the actions of the extremist terrorists,” according to the Myanmar News Agency.
The UN team also met with Suu Kyi Monday in the capital Naypyitaw, where Suu Kyi underscored her government’s readiness to receive “verified returnees” from Bangladesh, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 671,000 Rohingya refugees have “fled targeted violence and serious human rights violations in Myanmar” since last August.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have been negotiating for months on how to begin returning refugees to their homes in northern Rakhine, especially as conditions in the camps deteriorate with increasing demand on resources and approaching monsoon rains.
However, aid agencies say repatriation may be premature unless their security can be guaranteed and many Rohingya have said they are afraid to return to Myanmar.
Journalist Nyan Chan contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar. CNN’s Angus Watson and Kristie Lu Stout contributed reporting.