A Myanmar court sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison Monday for illegal possession of official documents, a ruling that comes as international criticism mounts over the military's alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They contended they were framed by police. The verdict was postponed from a week ago because the presiding judge was ill.
The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her taking power in 2016 had raised hopes for an accelerated transition to full democracy from military rule, but she has since disappointed many former admirers.
"What happened today threatens to undermine the rule of law and freedom of press that democracy requires," said Kevin Krolicki, Reuters' regional editor for Asia. He called the verdict "heartbreaking."
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, both testified they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations. Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected. Wa Lone's wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple's first child in Yangon on Aug. 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.
The two journalists had been reporting last year on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.
Investigators working for the UN's top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers over the crackdown.
The accusation of genocide was rejected by Myanmar's government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far. Also last week, Facebook banned Myanmar's powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.
Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, in support of the reporters. But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.
Myanmar's courts are one of the country's most conservative and nationalistic institutions, and the darkened political atmosphere had seemed unlikely to help the reporters' cause.
The court earlier this year declined to stop the trial after an initial phase of presentation of evidence, even though 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 kicked 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.
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the UN was "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," he said. "Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists."
In the latest US expression of concern, Washington's envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the Trump administration expected to see the two journalists acquitted of all charges.
Haley told the Security Council during a discussion of the Rohingya crisis last week that "a free and responsible press is critical for any democracy."