Two Myanmar journalists were each sentenced to seven years in jail yesterday for breaching the country's state secrets Act, in a ruling critics decried as an attempt to punish them for exposing a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
The reporters - Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 - were working for Reuters when they were arrested last December. The duo say they were framed for the crime, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail. "I believe in justice and democracy," Wa Lone said after the verdict.
Just before their arrest, the pair were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya in Inn Din village that took place amid a larger military crackdown in Rakhine. In the space of mere weeks from August last year, some 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, where they remain in overcrowded camps today.
While the military has said it was responding to a terrorist attack and largely denies any wrongdoing, human rights groups say the gang rapes, extra-judicial killings and systematic arson of Rohingya villages point more to ethnic cleansing.
The Rohingya Muslims are seen as illegal immigrants in the impoverished Rakhine state and draw little sympathy elsewhere in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The reporters' lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters the verdict was bad for Myanmar, democracy, rule of law and press freedom.
Diplomats from the United States, Britain and the Netherlands expressed disappointment and dismay at the verdict.
Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said in a statement: "These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.
"Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today's ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces."
He added: "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."
The two men were reportedly invited to dinner by police, given some documents and then arrested.
Kyaw Soe Oo has a two-year-old daughter, while Wa Lone has a month-old daughter he has never met.
Reuters' Asia regional editor Kevin Krolicki told The Straits Times yesterday that the organisation will continue to "do the right thing by their families" and give them the financial and other forms of support that they need. "We are in this until there is justice. We are in this until we have Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo free," he said.
While Naypyitaw says it is ready to take the Rohingya refugees back, there have been no official repatriations from Bangladesh so far amid concern that conditions in Myanmar remain inhospitable.
In May, President Win Myint pardoned 58 Rohingya returnees who were arrested after they tried to cross back into Myanmar on their own. According to a report published last month by Human Rights Watch, at least six such "returnees" later fled back to Bangladesh for fear of their safety.
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose to focus on terrorism when addressing the topic of the Rohingya in a speech in Singapore last month.
"The danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, remains real and present today," she said. "Unless this security challenge is addressed, the risk of inter-communal violence will remain."
The Rakhine crisis has damaged Ms Suu Kyi's and Myanmar's international standing at a time when the fledgling civilian government is struggling to work around a military-crafted Constitution which grants the military control over the key ministries overseeing defence, home affairs and border affairs.
Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing is not among the Myanmar military and police officials sanctioned by the US, European Union and Canada for atrocities against the Rohingya.
But a United Nations fact-finding report released last week recommended that the commander-in-chief, together with other senior military officials, be investigated for genocide.
The report even alleged that the civilian authorities had con-tributed to the commission of atrocity crimes "through their acts and omissions".