Two Reuters journalists jailed for seven years after investigating atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma had their appeal dismissed Friday, crushing their families’ hopes that they would walk free.
Reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested in Yangon in December 2017 and accused of breaching a law on state secrets while they were reporting on the mass murder of ten Rohingya men by the Burmese military.
The massacre took place during a brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya community in 2017 that caused more than 700,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape arson, murder and mass rape. The United Nations has described the army’s campaign as “ethnic cleansing.”
The two journalists had pleaded not guilty to breaching a colonial-era Official Secrets Act, protesting that they were framed by the police. Reuters accused the authorities of creating trumped up charges to muzzle their reporting.
Their conviction in September marked a new low for press freedom in Burma and sparked further international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, the former human rights champion and now Burmese civilian leader, who has refused to advocate on their behalf.
On Friday their slim chance of early release was thrown out by Aung Naing, a judge at the Yangon Regional High Court, who said the original verdict was a "reasonable decision" delivered in line with the law.
"The court decides to dismiss the appeal," he said.
His ruling, which condemns the pair to continue their detention at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, prompted tears from the reporters’ wives who have been separated from their husbands now for the past 13 months.
"I feel really sad that what we hoped for did not happen," a visibly upset Chit Su Win, who is married to Kyaw Soe Oo, told AFP outside the court.
Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon – who has given birth to a baby girl since her husband was put behind bars – was in similarly low spirits. "I don’t want to talk about the decision today as it is not good news," she said.
At the time of the arrest they were probing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din village in northern Rakhine state. Seven Burmese soldiers have since been sentenced to ten years of hard labour for their role in the murders.
In a statement on Friday, Stephen Adler, the Reuters editor-in-chief, said that the reporters “remain behind bars for one reason: those in power sought to silence the truth.”
Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response, called for their immediate release.
“One day in prison was already an injustice. This appalling farce must end now. Myanmar authorities must release the two journalists immediately and unconditionally,” she said.
“They must also ensure that the people of Myanmar have the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including by repealing or amending the oppressive laws that are used against journalists, activists and human rights defenders.”
The reporters’ legal team can lodge an appeal with Burma’s supreme court, but a presidential pardon would be an alternative option to securing their release.
Win Myint, the current president, is viewed, however, as a loyalist to Aung San Suu Kyi. Once a long-time political prisoner herself, Ms Suu Kyi has shown little sympathy for the young men’s plight and in September denied that they were jailed because they were journalists.
Ms Suu Kyi’s international standing has already been severely damaged by accusations from UN investigators that she failed to use her “moral authority” to stop the military’s extreme violence against the Rohingya.
Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, who made earlier pledges to champion the journalists’ cause, on Friday called on Ms Suu Kyi to take a “personal interest” in the case. "We are very worried about due process in this case," Mr Hunt told BBC radio.