By Kurt Wheelock
UNITED NATIONS — At the UN on September 28, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney called for the release of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo by Myanmar, which detained them in December 2017 while they were investigating the murder of Rohingya men and boys in the Rakhine State village of Inn Din.
“Police planted government documents on the journalists while other officers lay in wait outside to arrest them,” Clooney told the audience in the UN’s Economist and Social Council chamber. “The journalists were arrested and were then prosecuted and subjected to a show trial in which their conviction was guaranteed.”
The event was hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists and had the journalists’ employer Stephen J. Adler of Reuters as an initial speaker. Adler said, “We are grateful for all those who have stood by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Our staff. Journalists around the world. Press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists. Governments and diplomats. Multilateral organizations.” While quieter on some other abuses, the UN has spoken out for these two Reuters reporters.
It was Amal Clooney, however, spouse of actor George Clooney as well as being an accomplished barrister, who was the star speaker on September 28. She detailed her defense of the journalists point by point: “Let me highlight three reasons why their trial was a miscarriage of justice. First, the prosecution’s own witnesses contradicted their case. A senior police officer who was expected to repeat the prosecution’s lies shocked observers when he announced that he felt compelled to preserve the ‘integrity’ of his profession and tell the truth. He gave explosive testimony in open court confirming that he heard a Brigadier-General in the police tell his subordinates to plant official documents on Wa Lone and then arrest him — or face jail time if they refused. After his heroic testimony, this witness was himself sentenced to a year in prison, and he is still imprisoned today.”
The government of Myanmar has vehemently denied it was targeting the journalists.
Amal Clooney continued, “Other prosecution witnesses fell apart one by one on the stand. One witness literally read notes written on his hand to try and remember what he was supposed to say. Another was asked to provide his notes from the arrest but said he had burned them. Prosecutors claimed they could not locate a key witness– even though he was in detention at the time. And during police questioning the officers did not even pretend to be interested in the documents they had seized. Instead, they asked obsessively about who the journalists’ sources were in Rakhine, and questioned why, as Buddhists, they would bother exposing crimes committed against Rohingyas. They even proposed to drop the charges if Reuters agreed to drop the story. Their offer was declined, but their own words made clear that their goal was always to bury the story.”
Myanmar has also denied it is engaged in ethnic cleansing or genocide. It is contesting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, of which it is not a member. But Bangladesh, into which many of the Rohingya refugees have fled, is an ICC member.
Amal Clooney specified, “there was a conviction without proof of a crime. A conviction under the Official Secrets Act requires proof that someone collected or shared secret material with intent to prejudice their country. But the documents that were in the journalists’ hands when they were arrested did not contain state secrets; they were not even secret. And the journalists did not seek to harm the state: they were simply doing their job. But the judge entered a conviction anyway because Wa Lone’s old notebook included the number of a member of the Arakan Army, an armed group that Wa Lone was reporting on while covering peace negotiations for the Myanmar Times. The judge could not point to any contact with this number.”
The Myanmar justice system is being criticized worldwide. But the two journalists remain in jail.
Amal Clooney on Friday concluded, “The trial violated every meaningful right to due process. The court was clearly not independent or impartial – how could a fair-minded judge convict on this evidence? The journalists were not given sufficient information about the charges, were denied access to key evidence, and were questioned for weeks without their lawyers present. They were brought to a secret interrogation center, held incommunicado, hooded, forced to kneel, dragged on the floor, denied sleep, and pressured to sign statements against their will. Exculpatory evidence was hidden or destroyed. Most fundamentally: there was no presumption of innocence; instead, a predetermination of guilt.”
There are calls on Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar to now pardon the journalists. But she has instead defended the prosecution and cited sovereignty. And the Nobel Prize committee, of which she is a laureate, has said it is unlikely they will strip her of their award. For now, there is impunity.