Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How two reporters were punished for uncovering an atrocity

In a Burmese court, the defense’s ability to punch holes in the case was not enough to stop Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from being sentenced to seven years in prison after they investigated the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers

By John Chalmers  /  Reuters, YANGON, MYANMAR

Many from local media wore black T-shirts in solidarity with the Reuters reporters.

Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, mouthed quiet prayers between interviews with journalists. Kyaw Soe Oo’s sister, Nyo Nyo Aye, kept near her side, barely speaking.

When a white Toyota police van swung into the yard, Pan Ei Mon and Nyo Nyo Aye pushed through scrambling photographers and hugged the two men as they were led into the courthouse.

Within minutes, the court extended their remand for 14 days. An application for bail was refused on Feb. 1.

After that, the two reporters were put in a pickup truck almost weekly to make the nearly half-kilometer journey to Yangon’s Northern District Court, a dilapidated two story red brick building.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo would arrive at court handcuffed. Holding his hands clenched and at chest-level, Wa Lone looked like a boxer entering a ring, smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign for the cameras.

If there was a break in proceedings, the men were allowed to join their families in a side room, where they were fed and hugged.

Kyaw Soe Oo’s daughter, Moe Thin Wai Zan, now three, would cling to her father.

From time to time, he carefully lowered his handcuffs over her head and peppered her face with kisses.

Wa Lone’s wife sat as close to her husband as she could during the hearings. She gave birth to a girl, the couple’s first child, on Aug. 10.

The courtroom could hold about 40 people and was invariably packed with family, friends, reporters and foreign diplomats. Sparrows flitted through gaps above the saloon-style doors and nested in the rafters; a cat sometimes wandered through the court.

From a nearby room sounded the clacking of an old-fashioned typewriter. Power cuts were routine and during the humid summer, the room warmed quickly as the single ceiling fan slowed to a halt. In a familiar drill, a court official would hustle spectators aside to fetch a generator and lug it into a hallway, where it chugged until the session was over.

Flanked by policemen, Wa Lone would often make an impassioned statement to the media outside court after hearings.

On the day the court charged the reporters, he raised his voice and said: “For us, no matter what, we won’t retreat, give up or be shaken by this. I would like to say that injustice will never defeat us.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were caught in Yangon with secret information about the operations of security forces in Rakhine, the state where the Inn Din massacre took place, police said.

The reporters, they said, were detained after being searched at a traffic checkpoint by officers who did not know they were journalists.

Yet early in the proceedings, the police version of events began to fray.

At a hearing on Feb. 1, a police major, who led the team of arresting officers, conceded that the information in the documents had already been published in newspaper reports.

It was one of many inconsistencies to surface during testimony from the 22 witnesses called by the prosecution.

The precise location and circumstances surrounding the arrests emerged as a key point of contention in court.

The police said that the reporters were stopped and searched at a traffic checkpoint at the junction of Main Road No. 3 and Nilar Road by officers who were unaware they were journalists — not at a restaurant, as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified.

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