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Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone arrives at Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar, August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

(reuters_tickers)

By Antoni Slodkowski

YANGON (Reuters) - The verdict in Myanmar's prosecution of two Reuters reporters accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act was postponed on Monday until Sept. 3 because the judge overseeing the case is sick, a court official said.

Scores of reporters and diplomats had gathered at the Yangon court to hear the verdict on journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, the culmination of eight months of hearings in a landmark case that has come to be seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

"We are disappointed not to have received the judge's decision today," Reuters said in a statement.

"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. We look forward to receiving the verdict next week, when we very much hope that they will be acquitted and reunited with their families."

Government spokesman Zaw Htay could not be immediately reached for comment on the postponement of the verdict.

The climax of the case comes amid building pressure on the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown in the western state of Rakhine that was sparked by militant attacks in August 2017.

Later on Monday a U.N mandated fact-finding mission will release a report on the crackdown, which triggered the exodus of more than 700,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya, according to U.N. agencies. Most are now living in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Security Council will hold a briefing on Myanmar in New York.

Monday's court proceedings lasted just a few minutes, long enough for a judge standing in for Judge Ye Lwin, who has overseen the case against the Reuters journalists, to announce that a ruling would be made next week.

"The judge is in poor health, so I am here to announce that the verdict is postponed to the third," said Judge Khin Maung Maung.

Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters that the stand-in judge had said the verdict was ready but it had to be pronounced by the judge assigned to the case.

Wa Lone smiled broadly and made a thumbs-up sign with his hands in cuffs as he walked into the court, with Kyaw Soe Oo just behind him.

"We are not afraid or shaken. The truth is on our side. Whatever the situation is, we will not be shaken. They cannot make us weak," Wa Lone told reporters after the brief hearing.

Several journalists who came to cover the verdict wore T-shirts that read "Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo" and "Journalism is not a crime."

"LITMUS TEST"

The Reuters reporters are accused of breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, by collecting documents relating to the country's security forces.

They told the court during their trial that two police officials handed them papers at a north Yangon restaurant moments before other officers arrested them last December.

One police witness testified the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists to block or punish them for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine.

The United Nations has called the military's campaign in northern Rakhine a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

Myanmar has denied allegations of killings, rapes and arson made by refugees against its security forces, saying it conducted a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against Muslim militants.

But the military acknowledged the killing of the 10 Rohingya men and boys at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters. In April the military said seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for their part in the killings.

(The story was refiled to delete an extraneous word "the" from paragraph 4)

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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