YANGON (Reuters) - 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 toward 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 judge said, adding that the time served since they were detained on Dec. 12 would be taken into account. The defense can appeal the decision to 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 U.N. agencies.
The two reporters, who were investigating the killing by the security forces of Rohingya villagers at the time of their arrest, had pleaded not guilty.
Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the 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 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.
Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.Stephen J Adler, Reuters editor in chief
More than 80 people, including senior diplomats, were packed into the court on Monday.
Judge Ye Lwin read a summary of witness testimony for about an hour before delivering his verdict, which had been postponed by a week because he was sick.
The court determined that "confidential documents" found on the two would have been useful "to enemies of the state and terrorist organizations". Documents in their possession and on their phones were "not public information", he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo's wife, Chit Su Win, burst into tears after the verdict, and family members had to support her as she left the court.
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 also said the reporters had committed no crime and that they would maintain their fight for press freedom.
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"What I want to say to the government is: you can put us in jail, but do not close the eyes and ears of the people," he said.
Some of the reporters' supporters shouted "let them speak" and jostled with police as they were driven back to prison.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both have young daughters and have not seen their families outside of prison visits and court hearings for nearly nine months.
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.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay didn't respond to requests for comment about the verdict. He has mostly declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying the courts were independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
U.S. ambassador Scot Marciel said the "deeply troubling" verdict could undermine the confidence the Myanmar people had in the justice system.
"Unbelievable! More and more, responsible journalism is found to be a crime in Myanmar!" Yanghee Lee, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said on Twitter.
British ambassador Dan Chugg, speaking on behalf of EU members, said the verdict had "dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law".
France said it deplored the prison sentences and that the conviction of the pair represented a serious violation of press freedom and the rule of law, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
In Bangladesh, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, a media adviser to the prime minister, condemned the verdict saying it was "an open secret" that anyone exposing "atrocities of the Myanmar army" would be persecuted.
Reuters called the Myanmar military spokesman but an assistant said the spokesman was busy and unable to speak.
The 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 at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.
Earlier on HuffPost:
A U.N 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.
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.
(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis, Antoni Slodkowski, Thu Thu Aung in YANGON, Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Philip McClellan)