Myanmar court sentences Reuters reporters who probed Rohingya killings to 7 years in prison

A Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents, causing international outrage that will add to condemnation over the military's alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.

Canada's special envoy to Myanmar calls the verdicts for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo 'a travesty'

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, centre, talks to journalists as he is escorted by police to from a court in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday. The court sentenced him and another journalist to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents. (Thein Zaw/Associated Press)

A Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents, causing international outrage that will add to condemnation over the military's alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been reporting on the brutal crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state when they were arrested and charged with violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They had pleaded not guilty, contending they were framed by police.

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

Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo were accused of possessing secret government papers and charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. A police officer called as a prosecution witness testified his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists. (Antoni Slodkowski/Reuters)

"Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere," Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor in chief, said in a statement. "These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press. Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police setup, today's ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom."

The case is viewed as an example of how democratic reforms in long-isolated Myanmar have stalled under the civilian government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that took power in 2016. Though the military, which ruled the country for half a century, maintains control of several key ministries, Suu Kyi's rise to government had raised hopes for an accelerated transition to full democracy and her stance on the Rohingya crisis has disappointed many former admirers.

'This is unfair'

As the verdict was announced in the hot Yangon courtroom, Kyaw Soe Oo's wife started crying, leaning into the lap of the person next to her. Outside the court, police and journalists shouted as the two Reuters reporters were led to a truck to be taken away.

"This is unfair," Wa Lone told the crowd. "I want to say they are obviously threatening our democracy and destroying freedom of the press in our country."

Kevin Krolicki, Reuters regional editor for Asia, said outside the court that it was "heartbreaking for friends and colleagues and family of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who in addition to the outrage many will feel, are deprived of their friends and colleagues, husband and father."

Relatives of Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo leave after listening to the verdict. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

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

Condemnation internationally

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.

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.

The court's decision is being condemned internationally by governments and rights groups.

Bob Rae, Canada's special envoy to Myanmar in the wake of the Rohingya crisis, called it "a travesty."

In a statement, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Canada was "profoundly disappointed" in the sentence.

"This verdict gravely undermines the rule of law and freedom of the press in Myanmar, and betrays the decades-long struggle by the Myanmar people for democracy," she said.

"In any democracy, journalists must have the ability to report facts freely, to defend, expose and advance the truth without fear of retaliation, reprisal, violence or imprisonment."

Freeland's statement also called for the immediate release of the journalists. 

Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's director of crisis response, praised the bravery of the reporters.

"Instead of targeting these two journalists, the Myanmar authorities should have been going after those responsible for killings, rape, torture and the torching of hundreds of Rohingya villages," said Hassan in a statement.

Phil Robertson, director of Human Rights Watch, said the decision was a "signal to the rest of Myanmar reporters that if you cross the military, if you cross the government, they can make your life a living hell."

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.

Michelle Bachelet, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Myanmar to free the journalists.

"Their conviction follow a legal process that clearly breached international standards," Bachelet said in a statement. "It sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution."

Facebook bans military officials

Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain was "extremely disappointed" in the decision and called for the release of the journalists.

"In any democracy, journalists must be free to carry out their jobs without fear or intimidation," said May. "This verdict has undermined freedom of the media in Myanmar."

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, said "the clear flaws in this case raise serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar, and the reporters' conviction is a major setback to the government of Myanmar's stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms."

Investigators working for the UN's top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar 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. Also last week, Facebook banned Myanmar's powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organizations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.

With files from Reuters and CBC News