YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Myanmar judge on Monday postponed the verdict against two Reuters journalists accused of illegally possessing official documents in a case that has drawn attention to the faltering state of press freedom in the troubled Southeast Asian nation.
The verdict in the case of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone was expected to be handed down on Monday but was rescheduled for Sept. 3. The judge who announced the postponement said presiding Judge Ye Win could not attend because he had been ill since Friday.
The two reporters have pleaded not guilty to violating Myanmar's colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. They were arrested in December and have been detained since then after being denied bail.
The reporters contend they were framed by police while reporting on Myanmar's brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine that has drawn international condemnation.
"We will not be afraid for whatever decision or situations we are in," Wa Lone said after the postponement was announced. "It is because the truth is already on our side. We will not be frightened or scared because we didn't do anything wrong."
Reuters expressed disappointment that the verdict was not delivered as scheduled.
"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have already spent more than eight months in prison based on allegations of a crime they did not commit," the international news agency said in a statement. "We look forward to receiving the verdict next week, when we very much hope that they will be acquitted and reunited with their families."
About 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh after the crackdown began last August, and Myanmar's army has been accused by rights groups and U.N. experts of committing massive human rights violations amounting to ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide.
The two Reuters reporters had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya by soldiers, police and Buddhist civilians. In a rare instance of security forces being punished for extrajudicial killings, Myanmar's government announced later that seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for the killings.
The government has denied any widespread abuses but continues to restrict access in Rakhine. It insists the crackdown was a justified response to coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants that killed a dozen security personnel.
Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, and Wa Lone, 32, both testified to suffering harsh treatment during their initial interrogations. They lost several appeals for bail to be set.
The court also formally charged the reporters even though a police captain called as a prosecution witness during an initial phase of the trial testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists to entrap them.
After his testimony, the police whistleblower, Moe Yan Naing, was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was kicked out of police housing.
The documents presented as evidence in court appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive. The reporters testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.
"Sending these two Reuters reporters back to jail for another week just because someone else can't read an already written verdict shows again how both common sense and justice is failing in Myanmar's judicial system," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "These two reporters should have never been put on trial in the first place because all they were doing was their jobs as journalists but apparently the government is more interested using this trial to intimidate the local media than anything else."
The case has dissipated hope for a new era of freedom of expression under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party came to power in 2015 after five decades of military control. The case of the Reuters reporters is only the latest under Suu Kyi's administration in which the courts have aggressively pursued legal charges against dozens of journalists, along with other attempts to suppress and discredit the media.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Myanmar to immediately release the two reporters. Pompeo tweeted that he raised U.S. concerns about their detainment when he met with Myanmar officials on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Singapore.