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Myanmar Court Agrees to Speed Up Trial of Journalists

FILE - Image made from video released by the Democratic Voice of Burma, July 18, 2017, shows (L-R) Burmese journalists Lawi Weng, from the Irrawaddy, Aye Nai, from the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Pyae Bone Naing, from the Democratic Voice of Burma, raising chained wrists decrying lack of freedom and democracy, Shan state, Myanmar.

A court in northern Myanmar agreed Friday to expedite the trial of three journalists charged with violating a law that provides up to three years' imprisonment for people who assist groups that are deemed illegal.

A lawyer for the three journalists, Maung Maung Win, said the court in Hsipaw in northern Shan state agreed to hold sessions every Friday, instead of at intervals of roughly two weeks. He said a bail request has been submitted for the three.

The journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma and The Irrawaddy, both multi-format news services, were arrested June 26 after returning from a drug-burning ceremony organized by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic guerrilla group that is fighting the government. Their detention has been sharply criticized as a violation of press freedom.

"This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage," said James Gomez, director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for Amnesty International, which called for the journalists' immediate release.

The defendants arrived at the hearing in a police truck, looking happy to see supporters. Previous court appearances in the remote area had been rescheduled at short notice, making it difficult for friends and colleagues to attend.

As the truck arrived, Lawi Weng shouted "This is a reward for being a journalist"as he showed his shackled wrists. "See, this is democracy! This is our country's democracy.''

In addition to Lawi Weng, who works for The Irrawaddy, the two other journalists are Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Naing, both from the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The three were charged under the Unlawful Association Act, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison for anyone who "is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operation of any such association.''

The law has been used for decades by both military and civilian governments to intimidate, harass, arrest and imprison critics, political activists and journalists who have sought to write about alleged abuses committed by the military, especially against members of ethnic minorities.