A court in Myanmar has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years behind bars for what it called “breaching” a state secrets act while reporting on the military’s ethnic-cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, a ruling that quickly drew harsh criticisms from all over the world.
Journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were detained in December last year after reporting on the killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military in the northwestern state of Rakhine.
Judge Ye Lwin convicted the journalists on Monday of being guilty for breaching a law on state secrets when they collected and obtained confidential documents.
“The defendants … have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years. The time already served by the defendants from Dec. 12 will be taken into consideration,” the judge said.
The two have, however, pleaded not guilty. They once told the court that two police officials had handed them papers at a restaurant moments before other officers arrested them. One police officer had also testified that the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists.
Asked about their conviction, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay mostly declined to comment, saying Myanmar’s courts were independent.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi has been under intense pressure over the violent military crackdown on the Muslim community, which has forced some 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The UN has called the clampdown campaign — which has seen random killings, gang rapes and arson attacks — as the “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
The world body’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said in a report last week that the country’s commander-in-chief and other generals should stand trial for “genocide” and war crimes against the minority group.
A UN fact-finding mission reports that the Myanmar military carried out the ‘gravest crimes under international law’ against Rohingya Muslims with ‘genocidal intent.’
The mission has also said Suu Kyi should have resigned over her silence on the campaign of terror.
The de facto leader, however, has constantly been trying to justify the atrocities against the persecuted ethnic minority and even defended the country’s military on a number of occasions.
Reactions flow in
The court’s ruling on Monday prompted reaction from the United Nations, the European Union, the US, the Human Rights Watch as well as press freedom advocates, who have long been calling for the reporters’ release.
In a statement, the UN’s resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the world body had “consistently called for the release” of the journalists, and that “a free press is essential for peace, justice and human rights for all.”
“We are disappointed by today’s court decision,” he added.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the court ruling as “outrageous injustice.”
He said that saying that the reporters “are now slated to spend longer time in prison than the soldiers who killed the 10 Rohingya that was the subject of their story in first place.”
In turn, US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel called the verdict as “deeply troubling,” while British ambassador Dan Chugg said he was “extremely disappointed.”
“This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law,” Chugg said on behalf of his government and the European Union.
Reuters editor-in-chief, Stephen Adler also issued a statement, saying “Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.”
Dozens of journalists and activists took to the streets in Yangon in support of the Reuters journalists on Sunday.