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Myanmar court keeps journalists locked up

Myanmar’s top court upheld convictions of two jailed Reuters journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the country’s crimes against Rohingyas.

Myanmar’s top court upheld the convictions of two jailed Reuters journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on some of the country’s grave crimes against hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, have been imprisoned since December 2017 and are serving seven-year terms for violating the Official Secrets Act.

“They were sentenced for seven years and this decision stands, and the appeal is rejected,” Supreme Court Justice Soe Naing told the court in the capital, Naypyitaw, without elaborating, Reuters reported. The reporters' appeal to a lower court was rejected in January.

Their wives had traveled from Yangon to hear the verdict and emerged from the courtroom wiping away tears. Both reporters also have young daughters. While he was in prison, Wa Lone’s wife, Panei Mon, gave birth to their first child last year.

The journalists' lawyers unsuccessfully appealed the sentence, saying there was insufficient evidence the reporters obtained secret documents. A lower court heard testimony from a police officer who said the reporters were framed by police that planted secret documents on them.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did,” Reuters’ chief counsel, Gail Gove, said in a statement. “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.”The United Nations and other international organizations that promote human rights and press freedom have been urging Myanmar to immediately release the journalists from Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, which for many years has been known for its corruption, disease, torture and harsh treatment of political prisoners. They pointed to the case as yet another example of how the democratic transition promised by civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself was held at Insein several times, appeared to have all but ground to a halt.“The United Nations will continue to call for full respect of freedom of the press and human rights,” Knut Ostby, the U.N.'s top official in Myanmar, said in a statement. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists.”

The reporters had worked on a Reuters investigation into the killings of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and local Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The killings occurred in an army crackdown that began in August 2017 and sent nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslim people fleeing to Bangladesh.

Since last year, the United Nations and other international organizations have drawn special attention to the case of the two Reuters journalists as an example of how countries imprison journalists for doing their jobs.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, said the Myanmar Supreme Court’s rejection of the appeal compounds a grave injustice and marks a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar.

"This case shows the authorities’ resolve to ensure there can be no independent reporting on the military’s atrocities in Rakhine State — even at the cost of debasing the country’s judicial system," said Bequelin.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not isolated cases," he said. "In recent weeks, we have seen a disturbing surge in the number of people being arrested on politically motivated charges, most of them for criticism of the military."

Suu Kyi's military pedigree

Earlier this month, Reuters' staff with "notable contributions from Wa Lone and Kyaw Seo Oo" shared the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with The Associated Press, which won for a series of stories on atrocities from the war in Yemen.

The Pulitzer committee cited the Reuters reporting "for expertly exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, courageous coverage that landed its reporters in prison."

Numerous reports by news media, U.N. human rights investigators and international organizations have provided evidence of what they describe as genocide and other grave crimes against hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

The crackdown occurred under the watch of Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest due to her efforts to bring democracy to then military-ruled Myanmar. After Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in 2015, her civilian-led regime's ascent initially offered optimism that the country of 53 million would open to the world.

But her government has allied itself with the military that was once commanded by her late father, General Aung San, who is considered the father of modern-day Myanmar. She said last September that the reporters' case had nothing to do with press freedom, because they were imprisoned for possessing official secrets.

Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the imprisoned journalists, said the best hope now for getting them out of prison was to try to obtain a pardon from President Win Myint or a judicial review by Myanmar's parliament. “I am greatly disappointed,” he said. “This has damaged our country very much.”

Reporters Without Borders said in its annual World Press Freedom Index this month that “media freedom is clearly not one of the priorities" of Myanmar's government.

“Myanmar’s president can restore a semblance of dignity to his country’s legal institutions by pardoning these two journalists,” the organization said in a statement. “They have already been held for 497 days on trumped-up charges. How can we still believe in a democratic transition in Myanmar when the justice system flouts press freedom in this way?”