Friday, September 22, 2017

Shock, anger as Magwe court hands down 10-year jail terms

Four journalists and the chief executive officer of weekly journal Unity plan to appeal against their conviction, their lawyer said last week after the Pakokku District Court sentence them to 10 years with hard labour for breaking the 1923 State Secrets Act.

A relative of reporter Ko Sithu Soe cries outside Pakokku District Court on July 10. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)A relative of reporter Ko Sithu Soe cries outside Pakokku District Court on July 10. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

Lawyer U Than Zaw Aung said the law was undemocratic and designed to “oppress the people”.

“My clients are not spies,” he told The Myanmar Times. “If [the government] wants to give a lesson to reporters, they can take action against them under the Media Law. I argued for this but they ignored it. We will try to lodge an appeal.”

The case stems from reports published in late January that alleged the Tatmadaw was operating a chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region at what is officially known as the No 24 Defence Equipment Factory. They group was arrested in early February. The government has denied the existence of chemical weapons but Deputy Minister for Information U Ye Htut, a spokesperson for the president, has insisted that the allegations made in the articles were a national security concern.

Four reporters and editors – Ko Yazar Soe, Ko Sithu Soe, Ko Lu Maw Naing, and Ko Paing Thet Kyaw – along with chief executive U Tint San were arrested in February and charged with two offences.

Few were expecting such a harsh sentence, however. When it was read out by District Judge U Maung Maung Htay, sobbing from parents and relatives of the defendants filled the courtroom.

“They didn’t do anything. I think the court made that decision because it was forced to by the military,” said Daw Khin Mar Cho, the mother of one of reporter Ko Yar Zar Oo.

Ko Yar Zar Oo told reporters as he left the court after hearing the verdict that he was “very surprised” at the decision, which he described as “harsh”.

Earlier, the judge had rejected the argument of the defence team that the accused should be charged under the Media Law, on the grounds the offence was committed on January 25 and the Media Law was not enacted until March 14.

The judge said some lines in the Unity investigative report – including allegations that the military had seized more than 3000 acres of farmland for the factory, that the project showed the government had failed to rein in defence spending and this could harm relations with the international community, that anti-poverty efforts would fail because of high defence spending, and that the factory would harm trust with armed ethnic groups – were written with the intention of harming the state’s security and national interests.

Two Unity reporters attend court on July 10. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)Two Unity reporters attend court on July 10. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

Many observers questioned whether the government had interfered in the judiciary’s handling of the case, particularly as the prosecution had revealed during the early stages of the hearing that charges were filed on the instruction of President’s Office director U Hla Tun.

Reporter Ko Lu Maw said the group had been “bullied” by the government.

“I think they sentenced us like that because the executive and the judiciary together want to punish us severely,” he said.

“It is clear that the judiciary has no freedom,” said his wife, Ma Lwin Lwin Myint. “If they sent people to jail like this, then people can’t know the truth.”

The government made no announcement after the ruling and state newspapers did not report on the verdict.

After the sentencing, the Myanmar Journalist Network issued a statement objecting to the judge’s decision and promising to provide physical and mental assistance to the families of the defendants. The network said it would also support their decision to appeal.

The verdict ended a case that had seen more than 50 witnesses called, mostly for the prosecution.

Translation by Thiri Min Htun