YANGON • The wife of one of two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar made an emotional appeal yesterday to the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to free her husband for the sake of their young daughter, as the leader comes under increasing criticism for her silence on the case.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested while they were reporting on atrocities committed during the military's violent expulsion of some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims last year.
A Yangon court on Monday found the journalists guilty under the Official Secrets Act and sentenced them to seven years in prison, triggering outrage from the United Nations, European Union and the United States, as well as media and rights groups.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was herself subjected to house arrest for some 15 years, relying on foreign media to highlight a plight that kept her away from her own children as they were growing up.
Kyaw Soe Oo's wife Chit Su Win, 23, broke down in tears as she asked Ms Suu Kyi to release her husband, the father of their three-year-old daughter. "I want my husband to come back," she said. "I cry when my daughter asks me why her father is not with us. She asks me, 'Does he not love me?'"
A UN report last week accused Ms Suu Kyi of failing to use her moral authority to stem the violence last year and called for the generals to be prosecuted for "genocide".
Her silence on the journalists' case and the verdict - the sternest test in recent years to free speech in Myanmar - have shredded her reputation even further.
But Mr Aung Hla Tun, a former Reuters journalist who is now Deputy Minister of Information, defended Ms Suu Kyi over her reticence. "Criticising the judicial system would be tantamount to contempt of court," he told Agence France-Presse. "I don't think she will do it."
A whistle-blowing policeman corroborated the defence argument that the reporters were entrapped by police, who handed them documents over dinner shortly before their arrest. But the judge chose to ignore the testimony.
Lawyers for the pair will appeal against the verdict, but the process will take months, if not years.
President Win Myint, a close ally of Ms Suu Kyi, could also pardon the reporters, but experts say any immediate intervention is unlikely.
Erstwhile Suu Kyi advocates overseas have been left dismayed by her attitude to the journalists' ordeal.
Her one public reference to the Reuters journalists during the court case - telling Japanese broadcaster NHK that the pair had broken the Official Secrets Act - was criticised by rights groups for potentially prejudicing the verdict.
Wa Lone's wife Pan Ei Mon described the families' sadness on seeing the interview, saying that was the moment they "realised that she didn't know about the case clearly".
Response to the verdict has been mixed. A publication called 7Day News dubbed it a "sad day" for Myanmar and carried a large black rectangle on its front page.
The English version of the Myanmar Times ran a full front-page photo of Kyaw Soe Oo, calling the verdict "a blow to press freedom", although its Myanmar-language sister paper was more muted, simply urging the overhaul of obsolete laws.
On Facebook - the prime source of news for many in a country that only recently came online - comments about the case were overwhelmingly stacked against the reporters, with many accusing them of bias and some even calling for a harsher sentence.
The two journalists' wives said they try to ignore the negative opinions about their husbands.
"Some people say that I was wrong to marry a journalist, but I never feel like that," said Ms Chit Su Win. "He is not only a good journalist but also a good husband. I'm proud of him and I will teach my daughter to be proud of her father."