Yangon, Myanmar: A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and sentenced them to seven years in prison, in a landmark case seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the Southeast Asian country.
Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin said Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, breached the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they collected and obtained confidential documents.
“The defendants…have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years. The time already served by the defendants from December 12 will be taken into consideration,” the judge said.
Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the Reuters journalists’ acquittal.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement.
“I have no fear,” Wa Lone, one of the two journalists, said after the verdict. “I have not done anything wrong….I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”
The verdict means Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo–who both have young daughters and have not seen their families outside of prison visits and court hearings for nearly nine months–remain behind bars.
It comes amid building pressure on the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by militant attacks in August 2017.
More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims fled across western Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, according to United Nations’ agencies.
The Reuters reporters were arrested on December 12 while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine state.
Myanmar has denied allegations of atrocities made by refugees against its security forces, saying it conducted a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against Muslim militants.
A UN mandated fact-finding mission said last week Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and called for top generals to be prosecuted. Myanmar rejected the findings.
The International Criminal Court is considering whether it has jurisdiction over events in Rakhine, while the United States, the European Union and Canada have sanctioned Myanmar military and police officers over the crackdown.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has mostly declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
(With inputs from Reuters)