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Myanmar court postpones verdict for Reuters journalists

YANGON, Myanmar (UPDATED) – A Myanmar court postponed ruling Monday, August 27, on whether two Reuters journalists violated a state secrets law while reporting on the Rohingya crisis, with a new date set for next week.

"The verdict will be announced on September 3," said district judge Khin Maung Maung in a swift hearing at a courthouse in Yangon, adding that the presiding judge was sick.

The decision delays the long-anticipated ruling for Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who have been in Myanmar's Insein prison for some eight months.

They were arrested in December after being invited to a dinner with police in Yangon and pounced on as they left the restaurant, accused of possessing classified material.

Authorities charged them with violating a colonial-era state secrets act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years.

But the claims were undercut by a police witness who said his superior had ordered a set-up and by arguments that the allegedly secret documents had been published in state media.

The case has sparked fears of eroding press freedoms under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reuters has robustly denied the charges and the newswire launched a global advocacy campaign that included diplomats, celebrities and the legal assistance of prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

"Whatever they decide for us, we will not be afraid," Wa Lone told reporters as he left the courthouse and was led back into a police van.

Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were probing the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Myanmar's Rakhine state a week after the military launched a sweeping crackdown on members of the stateless Muslim minority.

The United Nations and Washington have called the campaign "ethnic cleansing", after some 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine for Bangladesh, bringing with them testimonies of rape, arson and killings in the northern part of the state.

Myanmar's former junta routinely jailed and censored the media, and journalists fear the Reuters trial shows that the repressive reflexes are on the rise even under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The trial on the outskirts of the former capital has been packed with well-wishers and family, with Wa Lone flashing a trademark double thumbs up upon arrival and Kyaw Soe Oo embracing his young daughter in emotional reunions.

Wa Lone's wife gave birth to their first child this month.

'Baseless' allegations

The two consistently gave stirring defenses of their work when speaking to reporters at the courthouse.

"We are not wrong and the things alleged by the prosecution are baseless," Wa Lone told the media after closing arguments last week.

The Myanmar army leadership has denied most allegations of abuses, and said they were responding to attacks on police posts.

But they conceded about a month after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested that the Inn Din massacre occurred, prompting speculation that authorities had attempted to thwart the story.

In February, Reuters published its account of the murders, which contradicts the military's claim that the killings happened after the village came under seige by Rohingya fighters.

If convicted, the two journalists can appeal and would also be eligible for a possible pardon by Myanmar's civilian president, a staunch Suu Kyi ally. – Rappler.com