YANGON • Myanmar has granted early release to seven soldiers jailed for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys during a 2017 military crackdown in the western state of Rakhine, two prison officials, two former fellow inmates and one of the soldiers told Reuters.
The soldiers were freed last November, the two inmates said, meaning they served less than one year of their 10-year prison terms for the killings at Inn Din village.
They also served less jail time than two Reuters reporters who uncovered the killings. Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo spent more than 16 months behind bars on charges of obtaining state secrets. The two were released in an amnesty on May 6.
Mr Win Naing, the chief warden at Rakhine's Sittwe Prison, and a senior prison official in the capital, Naypyitaw, confirmed that the convicted soldiers had not been in prison for some months. "Their punishment was reduced by the military," said the senior Naypyitaw official, who declined to be named.
Both prison officials declined to provide further details and said they did not know the exact date of the release. Military spokesmen Zaw Min Tun and Tun Tun Nyi declined to comment.
The seven soldiers were the only security personnel the military has said it has punished over the 2017 operation in Rakhine, which drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.
UN investigators said the crackdown was executed with "genocidal intent" and included mass killings.
Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and officials have pointed to the jailing of the seven soldiers in the Inn Din case as evidence that its security forces do not enjoy impunity. "I would say that we took action against every case we could investigate," the military's commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, told officials from the UN Security Council in April last year.
Reached by phone last Thursday, a man named Zin Paing Soe confirmed that he was one of the seven soldiers and that he was now free, but declined to comment further.
The 2017 campaign was launched across villages in northern Rakhine in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents. Reuters exposed the killings in a report published in February last year.
On Sept 1, 2017, soldiers and some villagers detained a group of 10 Rohingya. The military said the men were "terrorists"; their family members said they were farmers, students and an Islamic teacher.
The next morning, witnesses said, Buddhist villagers hacked some of the Rohingya men with swords. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops and buried in a shallow grave.
The two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, discovered the grave and obtained pictures of the 10 men before and after they were killed. The journalists were arrested in December 2017 and later sentenced to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act.
In April last year, after launching an investigation into the killings, the military announced that four officers and three soldiers of other ranks had been dismissed from the military and sentenced to 10 years with hard labour for "contributing and participating in murder".
Political activist Aung Than Wai, who recently spent nearly six months in Sittwe Prison for flouting a privacy law, said the seven soldiers were well-known among prisoners there. "We were in the same building but different cells," he said. The second man, who was in the prison at the time and asked not to be named, said the men were taken away in a military vehicle in November.