A Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters news agency journalists to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents, a ruling that comes as international criticism mounts over the military’s alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who investigated massacre of Rohingya men, had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They contended they were framed by police.
“I have no fear,” Wa Lone said after the verdict, which was postponed for a week because Judge Ye Lwin was sick. “I have not done anything wrong … I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”
The judge said that “the defendants … have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c,…. “The time already served by the defendants from December 12 will be taken into consideration,” Ye Lwin said.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from neighbouring Bangkok, said that “throughout the course of this trial there was very little, if anything, in the way of credible evidence that could justify such conviction”.
The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her taking power in 2016 had raised hopes for an accelerated transition to full democracy from military rule, but she has since disappointed many former admirers.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement.
“We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, both testified they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations.
Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected. Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in Yangon on August 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.
The two journalists had been reporting last year on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in western Rakhine state.
‘Accusation of genocide’
About 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya figthers killed a dozen members of the security forces.
Investigators working for the UN’s top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers over the crackdown.
The accusation of genocide was rejected by Myanmar’s government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far.
Also last week, Facebook banned Myanmar’s powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.
Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, in support of the reporters.
But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.
Myanmar’s courts are one of the country’s most conservative and nationalistic institutions, and the darkened political atmosphere had seemed unlikely to help the reporters’ cause.
This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech.
Stephen J Adler, Reuters Editor-in-Chief
The court earlier this year declined to stop the trial after an initial phase of presentation of evidence, even though a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists.
After his testimony, the officer was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was kicked out of police housing.
Other testimony by prosecution witnesses was contradictory, and the documents presented as evidence against the reporters appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive. The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the UN was “disappointed by today’s court decision”.
“The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the Reuters journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information,” he said.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists.”