Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is joining the team representing two Burmese journalists detained by the authorities after helping expose the murder of ten Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
Ms Clooney, 40, confirmed she would be helping lawyers working on behalf of Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 31, and 28-year-old Kyaw Soe Oo. The pair have been detained and accused of possessing secret government papers.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being prosecuted simply because they reported the news. I have reviewed the case file and it is clear beyond doubt that the two journalists are innocent and should be released immediately,” said Ms Clooney, a barrister at London’s Doughty Street Chambers.
“Yet they have been denied bail and face 14 years in prison. The outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.”
Reuters said the two reporters were detained after working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in Rakhine state during an army crackdown that began last August.
The crackdown, which the authorities say was triggered by attacks by Rohingya militants on government troops, has since resulted in anywhere up to 700,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh where they live in miserable conditions.
A court in Yangon, the nation’s former capital, has been holding preliminary hearings since January to decide whether the two journalists will be charged under the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Lawyers for the two reporters on Wednesday asked the court to throw out the case, saying there was insufficient evidence to support charges against the pair, the news agency said.
Zaw Htay, spokesman for Myanmar’s civilian government, declined to comment.
Government officials have previously denied the arrests represent an attack on press freedom, which rights advocates say is under growing threat in the southeast Asian country.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, said last month that the Reuters journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
Gail Gove, chief counsel of Reuters, said retaining Ms Clooney, who is married to the actor George Clooney, would strengthen the company’s international legal expertise and broaden its efforts to secure the release of the reporters who have detained in custody since their arrest in December.
Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto civilian leader, has been widely condemned for her refusal to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya.
A law passed in 1982 by the then military junta, codified 135 ethnic groups it considered to be Burmese, and thus eligible for citizenship. The Rohingya were not among them, something that has been used to further discriminate against them ever since. Many ordinary people believe the Muslim community are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.