World

Myanmar's top court rejects appeal of jailed Reuters reporters

Myanmar's Supreme Court has rejected the final appeal of two Reuters journalists and upheld seven-year prison sentences for their reporting on the military's brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

Court did not explain its decision in the case of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

In this combination image made from two photos, Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, left, and Wa Lone, are handcuffed as they are escorted by police out of the court Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, in Myanmar. The country's supreme court has rejected their appeal. (Thein Zaw/Associated Press)

Myanmar's Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the final appeal of two Reuters journalists and upheld seven-year prison sentences for their reporting on the military's brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo earlier this month shared with their colleagues the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, one of journalism's highest honours.

The court did not give a reason for its decision, which was condemned in several quarters, including by United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres.

"It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the
Rohingya in Rakhine State," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for Guterres. "We must continue to advocate and work towards their release and to strengthen the protection of journalists."

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are being held in a prison in Yangon, were not present for the ruling, but their wives were. Kyaw Soe Oo's wife broke down in tears when the ruling was read.

"Both he and I hoped for the best," Chit Su told reporters. "I am terribly sad for this decision."

The reporters were arrested in December 2017 and sentenced last September after being accused of illegally possessing official documents, a violation of a colonial-era law.

They denied the allegation and contended they were framed by police. International rights groups, media freedom organizations, UN experts and several governments have condemned their conviction as an injustice and an attack on freedom of the press.

"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did," Gail Gove, Reuters chief counsel, said in a statement after the ruling. "Instead, they were victims of a police setup to silence their truthful reporting. We will continue to do all we can to free them as soon as possible."

Their appeal in January to a lower court was rejected on the ground that the lawyers for Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, failed to submit enough evidence to prove they were innocent.

Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the two, said the pair could still seek their freedom by petitioning the president's office or the legislature.

President Win Myint could reduce the sentence, order a retrial or have them released. Legislative action for a retrial would be a lengthier, more complicated process.

"I am greatly disappointed by the decision of the court because it damaged very much our country's prestige and our right of information and press freedom," Khin Maung Zaw said. "But I'm not losing hope completely, because all the whole world is on our side. So, as I always said, the case was lost, but the cause was won throughout the whole world. "

The Myanmar army's brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the western state of Rakhine in response to attacks on security personnel in 2017 drove 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority to flee to Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees walk back to their tent during dusk at the Kutupalong refugee camp in November 2018. Many Rohingya Muslims have ended up in refugee camps in Bangladesh. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

Reporting on the crackdown is sensitive in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar because of worldwide condemnation of the military's human rights abuses, which it denies.

The two reporters had worked on an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which the government last year said seven soldiers were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison with hard labour.

Investigators working for the UN's top human rights body said last year that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers, while other critics accused the army of ethnic cleansing.

The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, citing other recent rulings against a filmmaker and a theater troupe, said the decision was "deeply disappointing."

"Journalism, satire, peaceful protest, and other forms of legitimate expression should not be crimes in a democratic society," it said in a statement.

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