A lawyer for two Reuters journalists sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act filed an appeal Friday with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn their convictions.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for having government documents in their possession. They contend they were framed by police, and their supporters say they were targeted because of their reporting on a crackdown by security forces on members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine state.
Beyond the specifics themselves, the issue has become a landmark case for press freedom in Myanmar amid lingering concerns about rights since the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, took power following historic elections in 2015.
The appeal says lower court rulings involved errors in judicial procedure. An appeal last month to the Yangon High Court was rejected by the judge, who ruled that lawyers failed to submit enough evidence to prove that Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were innocent.
“Our petition asks that the Supreme Court finally provide justice to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, reverse the lower courts’ errors, and order the release of our journalists,” Reuters said in a statement Friday.
Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said the lower courts did not properly evaluate witness testimony. Observers at the trial described the testimony of prosecution witnesses as vague and contradictory.
A brutal counterinsurgency campaign beginning in August 2017 sent 700,000 Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh and triggered criticism worldwide — from rights groups, the U.N. and several Western nations — that Myanmar’s military may have carried out ethnic cleansing or even genocide. The government has said it responded appropriately to attacks on security forces by Rohingya rebels.
Separately Friday, the most dramatic witness in the original trial — a police officer who testified as a prosecution witness but confirmed the journalists’ claim that they were targets of a sting operation by the authorities — was released after more than a year in prison.
Police Capt. Moe Yan Naing was expelled from the force and sentenced to jail on charges of violating the Police Disciplinary Act after he testified that his superior arranged for two policemen to meet the reporters and give them documents described as “important secret papers” to arrest them on charges of possessing state secrets.
He was uncowed by his ordeal when speaking to reporters after his release from Yangon’s Insein Prison.
He said he did not violate police discipline, and that police methods were inappropriate because Myanmar was moving toward democracy.
Asked about his feelings toward the two reporters still behind bars, he said, “I am sorry about them, too.”
A report released Friday in Yangon by New York-based Human Rights Watch said expectations of a new era of freedom of expression under the government of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi remain unfulfilled nearly three years after her party ended more than five decades of harsh military rule.
It said Suu Kyi’s government has failed to roll back many of the legal restrictions imposed by past military regimes on freedom of speech and assembly, and has instead toughened some of those laws and enacted a new measure limiting free speech.
Journalists have been some of the most high-profile targets. The report said at least 43 journalists had been arrested since Suu Kyi’s government took power through last September, according to Athan, a freedom of expression advocacy group in Myanmar.
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has had a real opportunity to abolish the tools of oppression used by the military juntas, but has instead used them against peaceful critics and protesters,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “It’s not too late to reverse course and take steps to fully protect speech and assembly in Myanmar.”
By the Associated Press, with additional reporting by The Diplomat.