YANGON, Myanmar — A court in Myanmar on Monday formally charged two Reuters journalists accused of illegally possessing official information, allowing their case to go to a full trial.
The case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went through several months of hearings to determine if there was enough evidence to support the charge, which the reporters denied.
The two reporters were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating from British colonial times, and if convicted, could get up to 14 years in prison. They were arrested in December and have been detained since then because the court denied their request to be released on bail.
They apparently were targeted by the authorities because their work concerned the brutal crackdown by security forces against minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state. About 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since the crackdown began last August.
The two journalists had worked on an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which the government said seven soldiers were sentenced to up 10 years in prison with hard labor.
The reporters contended they were framed by police, a claim that was supported by testimony from a whistleblower in the police department, Moe Yan Naing. After giving his surprise testimony, he was jailed for violating the Police Disciplinary Act and his family was forced to vacate their police housing unit.
"We did not commit any crimes," Wa Lone said to journalists outside the courtroom. He said his response to the judge's decision was: "We won't ever give up. Today's court decision does not mean that we are guilty. We still have the right to a defense."
Reuters urged the authorities to release the two.
"We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they've done anything wrong or broken any law," Stephen J. Adler, Reuters' president and editor-in-chief, said in a statement.
"Today's decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar's commitment to press freedom and the rule of law," it said.
The Myanmar military's actions against the Rohingya have come under harsh criticism internationally, including charges that it was carrying out ethnic cleansing.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the court's action "a major setback for press freedom."
"A free press is fundamental to democracy," she said in a statement. "We call on the Burmese government to allow these journalists to return to their families and continue their work."
Human rights groups and freedom of expression organizations also decried Monday's court decision.
"This is a black day for press freedom in Myanmar," said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's director of crisis response. "The court's decision to proceed with this farcical, politically motivated case has deeply troubling and far-reaching implications for independent journalism in the country."
The free expression group ARTICLE 19 said that the court's decision "perpetuates a grave injustice and casts doubt on the independence of Myanmar's judiciary."
"The government must act decisively to protect journalists, promote accountability for human rights violations, and end the politicization of Myanmar's criminal justice system," the group said in a statement.