Two Reuters journalists accused of breaching Myanmar’s state secrets law while reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims were jailed for seven years on Monday, fuelling international outrage a week after the army was accused of genocide.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who have been held in Yangon’s Insein prison since their arrest in December, were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a draconian British colonial-era law which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The case, which sparked international outcry, was seen as an attempt to muzzle reporting on last year’s crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
Army-led “clearance operations” drove 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities – rape, murder and arson – by Myanmar police and troops.
The reporters denied the secrets charges, insisting they were set up while exposing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine village of Inn Din in September last year.
They had told the court they were arrested after being invited to dinner by police in Yangon, who handed them documents. As they left the restaurant, the pair were detained for possessing classified material.
But Judge Ye Lwin was unmoved, also disregarding a whistleblowing policeman’s testimony corroborating their version of events.
“The culprits intended to harm the interests of the state. And so they have been found guilty under the state secrets act,” he told the packed Yangon court.
“They are sentenced to seven years in prison each,” he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife Chit Su Win wept after the judge delivered the verdict, collapsing on the ground in tears as she filed out of the sweltering courtroom along with other shellshocked family members, reporters and diplomats.
The handcuffed pair, both Myanmar nationals with young children, gave brief but defiant statements on the court steps.
“The government can detain us in the prison but . . . don’t close the ears and eyes of the people,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
Wa Lone, whose wife gave birth to a baby daughter less than a month ago, gave a defiant “thumbs up” to the massed ranks of reporters.
“We will face [the sentence] with stability and courage,” he said, before the pair were bundled into a waiting police van and taken back to the notorious Insein prison.
Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said an appeal would be lodged as soon as possible against the verdict, which Reuters denounced as based on “false charges”.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar . . . and the press everywhere,” Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J Adler said, adding that the outcome was “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”.
The UN in Myanmar, the US, the EU and members Britain and France condemned the verdict and reiterated calls for the reporters’ release, while rights groups added their voices to the chorus of outrage.
The ruling “sends a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses”, Amnesty International’s Tirana Hassan said in a statement. “This amounts to censorship through fear.”
Frederick Rawski of the International Commission of Jurists described it as a miscarriage of justice following a “grossly unfair” hearing, citing the lack of evidence and violations of the right to a fair trial.
Advocacy organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the “sham trial” and sentencing as a “dark day for press freedom in Myanmar”.
The army has published its version of events at Inn Din village, conceding the Rohingya men were killed while in custody but saying it was a one-off case of abuse by a mixture of security forces and ethnic Rakhine locals.
Monday’s ruling comes a week after the release of an explosive United Nations-led study into abuses in Rakhine, accusing Myanmar’s army chief of heading a campaign of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” against the Rohingya.
It also strongly criticised de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use her moral authority to stand up for the stateless minority.
The same day, Facebook shut down the pages of Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military top brass, in what the company said was a bid to prevent them from further fanning “ethnic and religious tensions”.
As calls mount for Myanmar’s military leaders to face an international tribunal, they have remained defiant, insisting last year’s crackdown was a proportionate response to attacks by Rohingya militants on border posts.
But Suu Kyi’s reputation as a defender of human rights has been shredded by her refusal to speak out against the military for its handling of the Rohingya crisis or in support of the jailed reporters.