Minutes after two Reuters reporters arrived at Yangon’s Insein Township courthouse this morning to hear a judge’s ruling on whether they are guilty of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, they were quickly ushered out and taken back to prison. The court announced that the verdict had been postponed for a week because the presiding judge is too ill to deliver it.
“The judge already said to the accused and to all of us on the bench that all is ready. The verdict is ready. But the judge is sick, and he cannot pronounce the verdict,” said Khin Maung Zaw, a defense lawyer for reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whose fate will now be announced on Sept. 3.
The two reporters have been in detention since Dec. 2017, when they were set up by police in a controversial sting operation while reporting on a military massacre of Rohingya men and boys in the village of Inn Din last September. A police officer called by the prosecution unexpectedly testified in April that their arrest was orchestrated as a response to their reporting.
When asked why the court did not announce the postponement earlier, before dozens of journalists, foreign diplomats, and free speech activists convened at the courthouse, the lawyer said the reason was “to make it more official and to meet and explain to the two accused directly.”
However, the timing of the postponement has raised suspicions that the court is trying to avoid criticism at the United Nations. A UN-appointed fact-finding mission is expected to release a report on the Rohingya refugee crisis today, and the UN Security Council will hold a briefing on Myanmar at its New York headquarters tomorrow.
Responding to that claim that the timing of the postponement is related to the UN, Khin Maung Zaw said: “Maybe, but I don’t know for sure. Maybe they are trying to shun the pressure, or maybe, if the two journalists are convicted, then a bad impression will occur on the UN.”
Either way, the lawyer said, the delay offers neither a glimmer of hope or cause for despair for the defendants because the judge, Ye Lwin, has already made his decision.
“It’s not a noteworthy change,” the lawyer said.
Others, however, disagree. In a statement released after the delay of the verdict, Reuters announced: “We are disappointed not to have received the judge’s decision today. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have already spent more than eight months in prison based on allegations of a crime they did not commit. We look forward to the receiving the verdict next week, when we very much hope that they will be acquitted and reunited with their families.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “Sending these two Reuters reporters back to jail for another week just because someone else can’t read an already written verdict shows again how both common sense and justice is failing in Myanmar’s judicial system. These two reporters should have never been put on trial in the first place because all they were doing was their jobs as journalists, but apparently the government is more interested using this trial to intimidate the local media than anything else.”
‘Half optimistic, half pessimistic’
If the previous behavior of presiding judge, Ye Lwin, serves as any indication of how the case will end, there is little reason for optimism. Even after hearing several witnesses for the prosecution contradict themselves and each other about the circumstances of the reporters’ arrest, after police captain Moe Yan Naing exposed the plot devised by a senior police official to entrap the reporters, and after it was revealed that all of the information found in the reporters’ possession after their arrest was already public, the court still decided to officially charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in July.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw described his feelings about the chance of a favorable verdict as “half optimistic and half pessimistic”. With the odds so stacked against his clients, he and the rest of the defense team are already thinking ahead to the appeals process.
“If it’s a negative verdict, with the proper channel, I will appeal to a higher court,” said Khin Maung Zaw. He explained that the first option will be to appeal to the Yangon Region high court, and if the verdict comes down the same, he will take the case to the supreme court.
“In the supreme court there are three steps. If we are not satisfied with the supreme court decision given by one judge, then we will apply for a full bench in what is called a ‘special appeal’. That will be a final decision. But even after that, in very rare cases, we can apply to the judges under Section 18 of the Burmese Judiciary Law to call for the case to be reviewed [again] by a supreme court justice,” he said.
If that fails, the lawyer said he is hopeful about the possibility of a presidential pardon.
“I have very close, familiar ties with [President Win Myint] because [when he was] a member of parliament since 2012, I worked with him and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a legal aid. We worked together, and he is a very just, very firm, very lenient person.”
However, the lawyer acknowledged that even with all of these options available, a guilty verdict would be stain on his country’s democratization process.
“If the adjudicature or the court do not accept the right of information of journalists, it is very serious to the building of a democracy in our country,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson expressed a similar sentiment, saying: “Eventually Myanmar is going to wake up and realize that these kinds of politically driven prosecutions in a judicial system lacking both independence and competence are a major drag on the country’s political, social, and economic development. But how many more of these train-wreck-style court cases will occur before the government finally recognizes the extent of damage they are doing?”