World News

Myanmar Journalists Convicted and Sentenced to 7 Years in Prison

Posted September 3, 2018 1:28 a.m. EDT
Updated September 3, 2018 1:30 a.m. EDT

Two Reuters reporters who uncovered a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Myanmar were found guilty Monday of possessing secret documents and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The judge in the case, U Ye Lwin, announced the verdict before a courtroom crowded with journalists and foreign diplomats who have closely followed the case as a test of press freedom in the country.

The two journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested in mid-December after a police officer insisted on meeting them at a restaurant in Yangon and handed them some rolled-up papers.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo contended during the trial that the police entrapped them. They testified that they were arrested so quickly that they never had a chance to read the documents.

At the time, the two reporters were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya villagers in Rakhine state by members of the military and Buddhist civilians. Their report, including photographs of the 10 victims tied up and kneeling before their executions, was published after the reporters’ arrest.

The massacre occurred during violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military and local Buddhist mobs that drove hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh in what has been widely condemned as ethnic cleansing.

“The decision makes me so upset,” Wa Lone said after the verdict was announced. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

At trial, the defense argued that none of the prosecution’s 17 witnesses had produced evidence of a crime.

One prosecution witness who said he was present during the arrests admitted under cross-examination that he had written the location on his hand so he would not forget it while he was testifying.

Another officer admitted that he burned his notes of the arrest. Yet another police witness acknowledged that the information in the supposedly secret documents had been published in newspaper reports before their arrests.

A police captain who told the court that the arrests were a setup was punished for his testimony with a year in prison.

The captain, Moe Yan Naing, testified that a more senior officer had ordered a police corporal to plant the documents on Wa Lone.

“I am revealing the truth, because police of any rank must maintain their own integrity,” Moe Yan Naing told reporters after he testified. “It is true that they were set up.”

He was later sentenced in secret to 12 months in prison for violating the police disciplinary code.

Two U.S. secretaries of state, Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson, had called for the men’s release, as had journalist organizations in Myanmar and overseas.

The two reporters were charged under Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, and the case was prosecuted by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest under the previous military government.

She said in a June interview with the Japanese television network NHK that they “were arrested because they broke the Official Secret Act” but that it was up to the judicial system to decide whether they were guilty.

Suu Kyi has been widely criticized overseas for not speaking up against what some term a genocide of the Rohingya. She also had been urged by rights groups worldwide to release the two journalists.