MANDALAY — A Pakkoku District Court questioned the first witnesses in the case of the four detained journalists and the CEO of the Unity Journal on Monday and Tuesday, a lawyer of the defendants said, adding that the prosecution has compiled a list of 40 witnesses to testify against the journalists.
The five defendants have been held in Pakokku District Prison, Magwe Division, since early February after the Unity Journal published a story headlined: “A secret chemical weapons factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township.”
They have been charged with violating the 1923 State Secrets Act and also face charges of trespassing in a restricted area. Revealing state secrets under the colonial-era law carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment.
Robert San Aung, a lawyer defending journalist Lu Maw Naing, said the director of the Defense Weapons Factory 24, Lt-Col Kyaw Kyaw Oo, had initiated the case against the Unity Journal staffers.
Three witnesses, all employed at the facility, were questioned by the prosecution, the court and lawyers in relation to the trespassing charges on Monday and Tuesday, he said.
“The witnesses were being questioned about whether the factory area is a restricted zone or not, but they couldn’t clarify [this point],” the lawyer said, adding that the court was shown photos of signs around the facility with the warning: ‘Prohibited Area. Do not trespass.’
“On the other hand, they [witnesses] confirmed that Chinese technicians worked at the factory, but they said that the factory is not in the process of producing any weapons.”
He said one of the witnesses, Capt Htet Wai Aung, a manager at Defense Weapons Factory 24, told the court that the management had received an order from the President’s Office to initiate a lawsuit against the journalists a few days after their story appeared.
“A witness said they have to charge our clients under the instructions from the President Office’s Director General Hla Htun,” Robert San Aung said.
He said the prosecution had submitted a list of 40 witnesses who would testify against the journalists and their CEO, adding that the list includes government officials, military officers in charge at Defense Weapons Factory 24, and factory workers.
“We can’t say what will happen after presenting all of the 40 prosecution witnesses to the court. We are hoping for the best,” Robert Sang Aung said.
CEO Tint San, reporters Paing Thet Kyaw, Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo and Sithu Soe have previously requested to stand trial at a court in Rangoon, but the court has denied the request. The defendants are not eligible for bail under the charges of the State Secrets Act.
Their article, which included photographs, claimed that Defense Weapons Factory 24 in central Burma was built in 2009 on more than 3,000 acres of land confiscated from farmers, and that it was connected by over 1,000 feet of underground tunnels.
The journal cited local residents who said staff at the factory claimed to be producing chemical weapons. It did not cite any factory or government authorities for this claim. Unity Journal said the facility has been visited by the former military regime’s strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe, as well as the current commander-in chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing.
The government issued a statement in state-run media denying the claim as “baseless”. Yet, government officials simultaneously defended the heavy charges brought against the journalists, comparing the case with US government efforts to prosecute whistleblower Edward Snowden for leaking National Security Agency documents.
Burma is one of only six countries worldwide that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The next trial hearing is scheduled to take place on March 31 and April 1. According to family member of the defendants, all are in good health, except for Lu Maw Naing who has endured some health problems.
“He’s been suffering for some weeks as the prison officials said they will take care of him but they don’t since there is no prison doctor. Just last week, we were allowed to bring a physician ourselves and he feels much better now,” his wife Lwin Lwin Myint said.
She complained, however, that some prison officials had imposed restrictions on the contact between defendants and visiting family members, even though they had travelled all the way from Rangoon to see them.
“Some officers from Special Police Bureau are still trying to harshly restrict meetings with the family and the lawyers before the court session start,” Lwin Lwin Myint said.
International and local media freedom advocates have said the case against the Unity Journal staffers is a blow for Burmese media after the reforms initiated by President Thein Sein.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday that the case is “a sign that authorities are already chafing under the more open reporting environment, four reporters.”