Published: Mon, September 03, 2018
Worldwide | By Victor Meyer

Myanmar judge sentences Reuters journalists to 7 years in prison

Myanmar judge sentences Reuters journalists to 7 years in prison

A court in Myanmar sentenced two journalists to seven years in prison Monday for illegal possession of official documents.

The reporters, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were working for Reuters when they were arrested in December previous year (2017) after being invited by policemen to meet at a restaurant in Yangon.

They were charged with a violation of the Officials Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that press watchdogs say has been used to muzzle independent reporting, and carries a maximum of 14 years in jail. "The time already served by the defendants from December 12 will be taken into consideration".

The journalists were investigating violence against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority; a military crackdown previous year sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Myanmar for refugee camps in Bangladesh, where many still remain.

Observers said the trial of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a litmus test for press freedom and the independence of the judiciary, which is perceived to be subservient to the government.

U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel echoed the same criticism, saying the court's decision was "deeply troubling for everybody who has struggled so hard here for media freedom".

"This is a major step backward in Myanmar's transition to democracy, can not be squared with the rule of law or freedom".

They have maintained their innocence, saying they were set up by police.

The small courtroom was cramped with family members, local and foreign journalists, and diplomats, including the USA and British ambassadors in Myanmar.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo smiled and made thumbs-up gestures as they left.

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Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both have young daughters and have not seen their families outside of prison visits and court hearings for almost nine months. "These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi's government".

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

The journalists had been working on stories about military persecution of Rohingya Muslims, which has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

"We will be in court tomorrow (Monday) to hear the final decision on the journalists' case", he said.

As they were led to the waiting prison van the handcuffed pair, both Myanmar nationals, gave brief but defiant statements on the court steps.

British ambassador Dan Chugg told reporters outside the court, "the verdict today has struck a hammer-blow to the rule of law in Myanmar".

The reporters had told the court they had received the confidential documents from two police officials at a restaurant moments before they were detained.

The verdict comes a year after the crisis in Rakhine state came to a head when a Rohingya militant group attacked several police posts.

The UN's resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby also condemned the incident. They contended they were framed by police after exposing extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims by the military in Rakhine state.

Last week, United Nations investigators said Myanmar's military leaders should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and said the mass killings of Rohingya constituted genocide.

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