United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for the immediate release of two Reuters journalists jailed for breaching Myanmar’s state secrets laws.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 were jailed for seven years on Monday for breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they obtained confidential documents.
The judge said time served since the pair were detained on December 12 would be taken into account.
Ms Bachelet, the former Chilean president in her first day as the UN human rights chief, said she was “shocked” at the sentences, calling the trial a “travesty of justice”.
The journalists, who were reporting on a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, testified that they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.
Ms Bachelet said of the reporters: “I think the information they gave on the massacre was of public interest.”
“So I will urge the Myanmar government to release them as soon as possible, immediately,” she said.
“I was shocked today in the morning, when I woke up and learned that these two journalists from Reuters have been imposed a sentence of seven years of jail.”
The reporters can appeal their sentences in a regional court and then the supreme court.
The verdict comes amid mounting pressure on the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in west Myanmar in August 2017.
More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled into Bangladesh since then, according to UN agencies.
Press freedom advocates, the UN, the European Union and countries including the US, Canada and Australia had called for the journalists’ acquittal.
Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement it was a sad day for the press everywhere.
“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,” Mr Adler said.
The reporters had told the court that two police officials handed them papers at a restaurant in the city of Yangon moments before other officers arrested them.
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 in Rakhine.
The court determined that “confidential documents” found on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organisations”.
Wa Lone, in handcuffs and flanked by police, told a cluster of friends and reporters after the verdict not to worry.
“We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo said they would maintain their fight for press freedom and the government should not “close the eyes and ears of the people”.
US ambassador Scot Marciel said the “deeply troubling” verdict could undermine the confidence the Myanmar people had in the justice system.
British ambassador Dan Chugg, speaking on behalf of EU members, said the verdict had “dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law”.
The European Union on Monday called for the immediate and unconditional release of two journalists
They were arrested on December 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 at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.
A UN-mandated fact-finding mission said last week that 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.