Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone being escorted by police after their sentencing by a court to jail in Yangon. Image Credit: AFP

YANGON: A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and sentenced them to seven years in prison, in a landmark case seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin said Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, breached the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they collected and obtained confidential documents.

"The defendants ... have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years. The time already served by the defendants from Dec. 12 will be taken into consideration," the judge said.

Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the Reuters journalists' acquittal.

"Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere," Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement.

"We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum." The reporters had told the court two police officials handed them papers at a north Yangon restaurant moments before other officers arrested them.

Entrapment

One police witness testified the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists to block or punish them for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims.

"I have no fear," Wa Lone said after the verdict.

"I have not done anything wrong ... I believe in justice, democracy and freedom." The verdict means Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo - who both have young daughters and have not seen their families outside of prison visits and court hearings for nearly nine months - remain behind bars.

Kyaw Soe Oo has a three-year-old daughter and Wa Lone's wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to their first child last month.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has mostly declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar's courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.

Verdict

The verdict had been postponed for a week because Judge Ye Lwin was sick. It comes amid mounting pressure on the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by insurgents from the Rohingya Muslim minority on the security forces in August 2017.

More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims fled across western Myanmar's border with Bangladesh, according to UN agencies.

Dozens of reporters from domestic and international media organizations and diplomats were at the court for the verdict.

'HAMMER BLOW'

U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel said he was sad for the two reporters and also for Myanmar.

"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," Marciel told reporters.

"We are disappointed by today's court decision," the U.N.

Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, said in a statement. "The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the Reuters journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information."

British ambassador Dan Chugg, speaking on behalf of his government and EU members, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the verdict in a case that had "passed a long shadow" over freedom of expression and the rule of law.

"This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law," Chugg said.

The Reuters reporters were arrested on Dec. 12 while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine State.

Myanmar has denied allegations of atrocities made by refugees against its security forces, saying it conducted a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against Muslim militants.

But the military acknowledged the killing of the 10 Rohingya men and boys at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.

A U.N mandated fact-finding mission said last week Myanmar's military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with "genocidal intent" and called for top generals to be prosecuted. Myanmar rejected the findings.

The International Criminal Court is considering whether it has jurisdiction over events in Rakhine, while the United States, the European Union and Canada have sanctioned Myanmar military and police officers over the crackdown.

Reactions to verdict on Reuters' Myanmar journalists

A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and jailed them for seven years, in a landmark case seen as a test of progress towards democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

Here are some reactions to the news.

U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MYANMAR SCOT MARCIEL: "I'm sad for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their families, but also for Myanmar. 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."

BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO MYANMAR DAN CHUGG: "Speaking on behalf of the British government, but also on behalf of EU member states, we are extremely disappointed by this verdict.

"Freedom of expression and rule of law are fundamental in a democracy, and this case has passed a long shadow over both today.

"The judge has appeared to have ignored evidence and to have ignored Myanmar law. This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law."

U.N. RESIDENT AND HUMANITARIAN COORDINATOR IN MYANMAR KNUT OSTBY: "A free press is essential for peace, justice and human rights for all. We are disappointed by today's court decision.

"The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the Reuters journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information.

"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists."

AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR TO MYANMAR NICHOLAS COPPEL: "Australia has watched this case very closely. Embassy staff have attended all the hearings and heard the evidence, including conflicting evidence presented by prosecution witnesses.

"We were therefore disappointed to hear that the journalists were found guilty."

STATEMENT BY THE EMBASSY OF DENMARK IN MYANMAR: "Instead of being celebrated for their efforts to expose the conduct of Myanmar's military, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have now been found guilty in spite of lack of evidence to support the prosecutor's claims.

"The embassy of Denmark calls on the government of Myanmar to undo this injustice, release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately and launch an investigation into allegations that they were set up by Myanmar's police force."

NICK PEULEN, POLITICAL OFFICER, DUTCH EMBASSY IN MYANMAR: "Journalism is a crime in Myanmar. An utter miscarriage of justice. Empty rhetoric on wanting Rule of Law by this administration. (The) President should pardon as soon as possible, but it won't change the endemic problems of this broken country." STEPHEN J. ADLER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, REUTERS: "Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.

"These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.

"Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today's ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces.

"This is a major step backward in Myanmar's transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.

"We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum."

TIRANA HASSAN, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S DIRECTOR OF CRISIS RESPONSE: "These convictions must be quashed, and both men immediately and unconditionally released.

"This politically motivated decision has significant ramifications for press freedom in Myanmar. It sends a stark warning to other journalists of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear."

BRAD ADAMS, ASIA DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: "The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts' willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities.

"These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi's government." DEBBIE STOTHARD, SECRETARY-GENERAL, FIDH WORLDWIDE MOVEMENT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND ALTSEAN-BURMA COORDINATOR: "Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been arbitrarily detained on trumped-up charges for uncovering a massacre of Rohingya civilians, which has been acknowledged by Myanmar's military.

Today's prison sentence against the two Reuters journalists is baseless and marks a massive setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar."

JOHN QUINLEY III, HUMAN RIGHTS SPECIALIST, FORTIFY RIGHTS: "This is an outrageous denial of justice...This is an absolute travesty and devastating day for media freedom across the world and in Myanmar. Journalism is not a crime.

"The Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They should both be able to continue their steadfast and important work as investigative journalists and go home to their families."

IQBAL SOBHAN CHOWDHURY, MEDIA ADVISER TO BANGLADESH'S PRIME MINISTER SHEIKH HASINA: "This has once again proved the Myanmar government has been pursuing the suppression of the freedom of expression and freedom of media. It is now an open secret that any media or any person who wants to reveal the atrocities of the Myanmar army and administration against the Rohingya people will face persecution by the Myanmar government.

"We strongly condemn this and demand the release of the Reuters journalists and a halt to any further persecution of any media person in Myanmar."

MOHIB ULLAH, ROHINGYA LEADER IN KUTAPALONG REFUGEE CAMP IN BANGLADESH: "This is not justice. I would like to see them free as soon as possible. They did nothing wrong."

THANT MYINT-U, MYANMAR HISTORIAN AND COMMENTATOR: "A tragic day for media freedom and an intimation of what's to come."