YANGON, Nov 5: Lawyers for two Reuters journalists sentenced in Myanmar to seven years in prison for possession of official documents are appealing the verdict, the news agency said Monday.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been reporting on a military-led brutal crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya minority when they were arrested and charged with violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They pleaded not guilty, saying they were framed by police.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape what U.N. officials and others charged was ethnic cleansing, or even genocide, by Myanmar security forces. The military denies the accusations.
“The appellate court will find many flaws with the verdict and sentence imposed by the trial judge,” a Reuters statement quoted Than Zaw Aung, a lawyer for the reporters, as saying. “It will finally provide Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo justice, declare their innocence, and make clear that journalism in Myanmar is not a crime.” The appeal was dated Friday.
Reuters President Stephen Adler said in the statement that the court’s ruling had ignored “compelling evidence of a police set-up, serious due process violations, and the prosecution’s failure to prove any of the key elements of the crime.”
“Now is the time for Myanmar to uphold its stated dedication to rule of law, freedom of the press, and democracy by ordering the release of our colleagues, whether on appeal or by granting the families’ request for a pardon,” Adler said.
The appeal says the court improperly “placed the burden of proof on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, convicting them on the basis that they failed to prove their innocence.”
The case drew worldwide attention as an example of how democratic reforms in long-isolated Myanmar have stalled under the civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power in 2016. Suu Kyi’s rise after decades of military rule had raised hopes for an accelerated transition to full democracy, and her failure to end persecution of the Rohingya disappointed many former admirers.
Suu Kyi also did not offer support for the freedom of press issues at stake in the case of the two Reuters journalists, despite what many observers saw as a seriously flawed prosecution.
“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Suu Kyi said in September at a meeting in Vietnam of the World Economic Forum. “Sentence has been passed on them because the court decided they had broken the Official Secrets Act, so if we believe in the rule of law they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment is wrong if they consider it wrong.”
The court declined to stop the trial after a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists. After his testimony, the officer was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was forced out of police housing.
Other testimony by prosecution witnesses was contradictory, and the documents presented as evidence against the reporters appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive. The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.
One of the many critics of the verdict was U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged Myanmar authorities to review the decision.
“The right to freedom of expression and information is a cornerstone of any democracy. It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine state,” Guterres’ spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement.