Myanmar jails 2 Reuters reporters for 7 years

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Yangon : A Myanmar court here on Monday jailed two Reuters reporters for seven years for breaching the Official Secrets Act while investigating violence against the Rohingya Muslims, a ruling which drew widespread flak.

Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on the night of December 12 after meeting two police officers who, according to the defendants, handed them confidential documents, the Efe news reported.

Since then, both have been held without bail and have appeared 30 times before the court, which started a preliminary investigation on January 9 and formally filed charges on July 9.

The case has been widely seen as a test of press freedom in Myanmar.

The journalists have maintained their innocence, saying they were set up by the police.

"I have no fear," Lone, 32, said after the verdict. "I have not done anything wrong. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom."

The two men, who both have families with young children, have been in prison since their arrest in December 2017.

"Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and press freedom anywhere," said Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler.

He said the company will "evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum".

The judge told the court the pair had "intended to harm the interests of the state and so they have been found guilty".

Lone and Soe Oo, 28, had been collecting evidence about the execution of 10 men by the Army in the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine.

During their investigation, they were offered the documents by two police officers, but were arrested immediately afterwards for the possession of those documents.

Authorities later launched their own probe into the killings, confirming the massacre took place and promising to take action against those who had taken part.

The BBC said that many would see this verdict as a crushing blow to freedom of the press in Myanmar and another setback for the democracy, three years after Aung San Suu Kyi's party triumphed in free elections.

Lone and Soe Oo bowed their heads as the verdict was delivered. Wa Lone - who has missed the birth of his first child while being detained -- protested his innocence again as he was led away.

Diplomats and human rights groups widely condemned the jail sentences.

The UN's resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the UN had consistently called for the release of the journalists and that "a free press is essential for peace, justice and human rights for all. We are disappointed by today's court decision".

British ambassador to Myanmar Dan Chugg said he was "extremely disappointed" by the verdict.
"The judge appears to have ignored evidence," Chugg told reporters.

His US counterpart Scot Marciel said: "It's deeply troubling for everybody who has struggled so hard here for media freedom. I think one has to ask - will this process increase or decrease the confidence the people of Myanmar have in their justice system?"

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) also condemned the verdict and called for the repealing the charges against the reporters as well as their immediate release.

Amnesty's Director of Crisis Response Tirana Hassan called the verdict politically motivated and warned that it would have adverse consequences for freedom of the press in the country.

"It sends a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear," Hassan said in a statement.

FIDH Secretary General Debbie Stothard criticized what she said was the arbitrary detention of the two reporters on fabricated charges.

The verdict comes a year after the crisis in Rakhine state came to a head when a Rohingya militant group attacked several police posts. The military responded with a brutal crackdown against the Rohingya minority.

The UN has said leading army figures in Myanmar should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide.

Media access to Rakhine is strictly controlled by the government so it is difficult to get reliable news from the region.