Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association appealed for leniency for sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe to two supreme court judges set to give their verdict on his appeal against a death sentence within a few days.
Zaw Thet Htwe, editor in chief of the sports magazine First Eleven is one of nine people who have been condemned to death for "high treason".
The international press freedom organisation and the BMA said after observing the trial in the lower court and studying the court records, they were convinced the journalist had been sentenced to death without any evidence or testimony proving he was implicated in an act of "high treason".
Both organisations urged the judges, Doctor Tin Aung Aye and U Tin Aye to accept the innocence of the journalist and the other three defendants. They said that Zaw Thet Htwe’s only crime was to head a popular and independent magazine.
The two supreme court judges sat on 6 April 2004 to take the statements of lawyer U Naing Ngwe Ya defending Zaw Thet Htwe and the three others. The defendants were also heard at a court within Insein prison where they are being detained.
The lawyer, who protested the innocence of his clients, confirmed that three of them had been condemned to death for sending reports to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). He said, "Nobody found explosives and anti-government documents in their possession (...) There was no act of high treason and they should be released unconditionally." The journalist’s wife and a colleague were able to attend the hearing.
The lower court trial record showed that Zaw Thet Htwe was convicted of contacting Burmese exiles abroad who had themselves plotted against the military junta. The journalist was only allowed to call one witness, his wife, and no lawyer was present to defend him.
The Burma Lawyers’ Council described the charges and the trial as being tainted by irregularities. The charge was laid by a police officer when an accusation of high treason should have been brought by the State. The Military Secret Service (MIS) had carried out the interrogations, when it had no competence to take confessions for a trial. The trial itself had been held behind closed doors.
Amnesty International released a report in April 2004, describing Zaw Thet Htwe as a "prisoner of conscience" sentenced after a trial at which neither the right to a defence nor the presumption of innocence had been respected.
A military court sentenced the sports journalist and eight others to death on 28 November 2003 under Article 122 (1) of the criminal code. They were accused of "high treason" for attempting to kill leaders of the military junta. The editor of First Eleven was accused of having sent reports to opposition militants based abroad. He was tortured during interrogation by the MIS.
The journalist’s arrest is believed linked to the success of his sports magazine, that specialises in football, and its independent editorial line. It carried one article in particular on a donation of four million dollars from the international community to promote football in Burma. First Eleven questioned what use the money had been put to.