UPDATES WITH REACTION FROM BURMA HUMAN RIGHTS NETWORK
By Kyaw Ye Lynn
YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – A Myanmar court on Monday sentenced two Reuters news agency journalists to seven years in jail for investigation into the murder of Rohingya Muslim men by security officials.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison during the investigation into the murder of 10 Rohingya men in the western Rakhine state.
Judge Ye Lwin of Yangon’s Northern District Court said each journalist was handed a seven-year imprisonment as they were found guilty of obtaining and possessing classified documents which they possibly transferred to the insurgent groups that are fighting against the government.
Wa Lone said the ruling is unfair.
“We did nothing wrong, and we have no fear. We still believe in democracy and freedom of speech,” said Wa Lone.
“We will fight for justice until the end,” he said.
Defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung said the ruling is unfair. “We will do everything legally.”
The United States embassy, after the conviction, called on Myanmar to release the journalists immediately, saying it is “a major setback” to the Government of Myanmar's stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms.
"The clear flaws in this case raise serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar," it said in a statement.
France has also slammed the sentence and reiterated its call for the release of two imprisoned journalists, as well as allowing free access of media in Rakhine.
"France reaffirms its constant commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and respect for these freedoms is a cornerstone of any democratic society," French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The ruling also drew criticism from local and international rights groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it marks “a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights” under the government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was accused of failing to stop the military atrocities on Rohingya Muslims.
"The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.
After their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were held incommunicado for two weeks, during which they were deprived of sleep and forced to kneel for hours during interrogation, according to the reporters and their lawyers.
“These convictions won’t hide the horrors against the Rohingya from the world,” said Adams.
“They merely reveal the precarious state of free speech in the country and the urgent need for international action to free these journalists.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also condemned the ruling and reiterated its call for the immediate release of the reporters.
“The conviction of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone is a terrible blow to press freedom in Myanmar,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“As the justice system clearly followed orders in this case, we call on the country’s most senior officials, starting with government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to free these journalists, whose only crime was to do their job. After a farcical prosecution, this outrageous verdict clearly calls into question Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” he added.
London-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) also condemned the conviction of the two Reuters journalists, saying that it signaled "another failure by the National League for Democracy administration to protect human rights and press freedom in Burma."
"… and stands in stark contrast to the impunity enjoyed by the military for the crimes that these reporters exposed," the statement published on Monday added.
*Satuk Bugra Kutlugun contributed to this report from Ankara