KONFRONTASI-A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and jailed them for seven years, in a landmark case seen as a test of progress toward 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 judge said, adding that the time served since they were detained on Dec. 12 would be taken into account. The defense can appeal the decision to a regional court and then the supreme court.
The verdict comes amid mounting pressure on the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in west Myanmar in August 2017.
More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled into Bangladesh since then, according to U.N. agencies.
The two reporters, who were investigating the killing by the security forces of Rohingya villagers at the time of their arrest, had pleaded not guilty.
Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the 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.
“We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”
The reporters had told the court two police officials handed them papers at a restaurant in the city of Yangon moments before other officers arrested them.
One police witness testified the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists to block or punish them for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.
More than 80 people, including senior diplomats, were packed into the court on Monday.
Judge Ye Lwin read a summary of witness testimony for about an hour before delivering his verdict, which had been postponed by a week because he was sick.
The court determined that “confidential documents” found on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organizations”. Documents in their possession and on their phones were “not public information”, he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, burst into tears after the verdict, and family members had to support her as she left the court.
Wa Lone, in handcuffs and flanked by police, told a cluster of friends and reporters after the verdict not to worry.
“We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo also said the reporters had committed no crime and that they would maintain their fight for press freedom.
“What I want to say to the government is: you can put us in jail, but do not close the eyes and ears of the people,” he said.
Some of the reporters’ supporters shouted “let them speak” and jostled with police as they were driven back to prison.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both have young daughters and have not seen their families outside of prison visits and court hearings for nearly nine months.
Kyaw Soe Oo has a three-year-old daughter and Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to their first child last month.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay didn’t respond to requests for comment about the verdict. He has mostly declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying the courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.