BANGKOK - Two Myanmar journalists were jailed for seven years each on Monday (Sept 3) for breaching the country's official secrets act, in a decision 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 in December last year (2017) after being invited by policemen to meet at a restaurant in Yangon. The duo say they were framed.
The crime carries a maximum sentence of 14 years' jail.
"I believe in justice and democracy," Wa Lone said after the verdict.
Just before they were arrested, the two reporters had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya in Inn Din village that took place amid a larger military crackdown in Rakhine state.
In mere weeks from August last year, some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh - and remain there today in overcrowded camps.
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 impoverished Rakhine state, and draw little sympathy elsewhere in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The reporters' lawyer, Mr Khin Maung Zaw, told reporters covering the case that the verdict was "bad for Myanmar… for democracy, for rule of law and for the freedom of the press".
Diplomats from the United States, Britain and Netherlands have expressed their disappointment and dismay at the verdict.
Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen J. 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: "This is a major step backward in Myanmar's transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.
"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."
Kyaw Soe Oo has a two-year-old daughter, while Wa Lone has a one-month-old daughter (born on Aug 10) he has never met.
Reuters Asia regional editor Kevin Krolicki told The Straits Times on Monday (Sept 3) 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. "They have been unwavering… in their commitment in their belief that the truth matters and that justice will be served. We are there with them, and will be there with their families, and we will be there as long as it takes."
While Naypyidaw says it is ready to receive Rohingya returnees, 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 on Aug 21 by Human Rights Watch, at least six such Rohingya "returnees" later fled back to Bangladesh out of fears for their safety.
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose to focus on terrorism when addressing the topic of Rohingya at 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 United States, 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, and even alleged that the civilian authorities had contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes "through their acts and omissions".