Yangon, Myanmar – The families of two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after uncovering a massacre in Rakhine state were once again left devastated on Friday when a court rejected the pair’s appeal to overturn their seven-year prison sentences.
After the judge rattled through his ruling in a crowded courtroom in downtown Yangon, the wives of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo wept as senior foreign diplomats offered their commiserations.
While little has gone in the reporters’ favour since their arrests in December 2017, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, was still clinging to hope before today’s decision.
“We were even hoping to go to the jail to welcome them if they were released today, but it’s not happening,” she told a scrum of reporters outside the gates of Yangon’s regional High Court.
Neither of the men attended Friday’s ruling. They have both been unable to see their children for the past month. Wa Lone’s detention forced him to miss the birth of his baby daughter in August last year, while Kyaw Soe Oo has only been able to see his three-year-old daughter at court hearings and prison visits.
A message to journalists
The two journalists were sentenced in September under the country’s Official Secrets Act after being accused of holding classified documents.
Their nine-month trial was roundly condemned as a sham aimed at stifling independent reporting on the military’s large-scale killings of Rohingya.
“Journalists have got the message that they should avoid these kinds of issues,” Myint Kyaw, secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network, told Al Jazeera.
The military is adamant its actions in late 2017 were legitimate counterinsurgency operations, but the UN has called for senior officials to be prosecuted for genocide.
Defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung said he would talk to the reporters about whether or not to take an appeal to Myanmar’s Supreme Court. “We are very disappointed about today’s judgement,” he said.
In their September appeal, the defence pointed to testimony by a police captain who said his colleagues entrapped the reporters in a sting by handing them documents and then promptly arresting them.
But Judge Aung Naing hewed closely to the original ruling today before observers in a high-ceilinged courtroom dotted with cobwebs, and described the pair’s prison terms as a “suitable punishment”.
Besides a Supreme Court ruling, the reporters’ best hope of being released soon is a pardon from President Win Myint, who would take orders from the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Based on previous cases of journalists being jailed in the country, said Myint Kyaw, there is a chance the pair will receive a pardon, “but it will take time”.
‘A day in prison is an injustice’
Maja Kocijancic, the European Union’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, said: “We are confident that the president of Myanmar will promptly address this injustice and ensure, together with the government, that the press can fulfil its function as an essential pillar of democracy.”
Many are losing hope that former icon of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi will intervene on the pair’s behalf.
Bill Richardson, a senior US diplomat and former confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi, alleged last year that she referred to the two journalists as “traitors” during a heated exchange.
Richardson resigned from his position on an international advisory body on Rakhine soon after the confrontation.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s reporting from Rakhine’s Inn Din village last year revealed how soldiers and villagers hacked and shot 10 Rohingya men and boys to death before burying them in a mass grave.
They were among almost 7,000 Rohingya who died within the first month of the military’s crackdown, which began in late August 2017, according to estimates from Doctors Without Borders.
The reporters were held incommunicado for two weeks following their arrests. Wa Lone later testified that he was hooded and deprived of sleep during days of interrogation.
“One day in prison was already an injustice,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response.
“This appalling farce must end now.”