Myanmar court sentences Reuters reporters to seven years in jail

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, along with Kyaw Soe Oo, have been sentenced to seven years in jail (Thein Zaw/AP) Credit: AP/Press Association Images

A Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents while reporting on violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, contending they were framed by police.

The verdict was postponed from a week ago because the presiding judge was ill.

The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, both testified they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations.

Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected.

Rohingya Muslims wait to cross the Naf River into Bangladesh. Credit: PA

Some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.

Investigators working for the UN’s top human rights body said last week genocide charges should be brought against senior Burma military officers over the crackdown.

The accusation of genocide was rejected by Myanmar’s government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far.

The journalists Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in Yangon on August 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.

The two journalists had been reporting last year on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in Burma’s Rakhine state.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief, Stephen J. Adler said on Twitter: "This is a major step backward in Myanmar's transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech."

Kyaw Soe Oo escorted by polices as the journalists leave court. Credit: AP

Facebook also banned Myanmar’s powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site last week to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.

Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, in support of the reporters.

But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone. Credit: AP

The UK’s ambassador said the verdict has undermined media freedom in Burma.

Dan Chugg, who was in court for the verdict, said the case has also "struck a hammer-blow to the rule of law" in the country.

He said diplomats who attended the trial believe the judges ignored evidence and the laws of the land.

The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents, and a police officer who testified his commander had ordered documents be planted on the journalists was subsequently jailed for a year.

Chugg has called for the journalists’ release.

Kyaw Soe Oo, centre front, and Wa Lone, centre back, are escorted by polices upon arrival at their trial in Yangon last week. Credit: AP

Myanmar’s courts are one of the country’s most conservative and nationalistic institutions, and the darkened political atmosphere had seemed unlikely to help the reporters’ cause.

The court earlier this year declined to stop the trial after an initial phase of presentation of evidence, even though a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists.

After his testimony, the officer was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was kicked out of police housing.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, centre, speaks as he leaves a court in Yangon, Burma, last week. Credit: PA

Other testimony by prosecution witnesses was contradictory, and the documents presented as evidence against the reporters appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive.

The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.

In the latest US expression of concern, Washington’s envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the Trump administration expected to see the two journalists acquitted of all charges.

Haley told the Security Council during a discussion of the Rohingya crisis last week that "a free and responsible press is critical for any democracy."