Yangon: A Myanmar court has rejected the appeal of two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of breaking the Official Secrets Act, saying the defence had not provided sufficient evidence to show they were innocent.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted by a lower court in September in a landmark case that has raised questions about Myanmar's progress towards democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates.
In this combination file image made from two photos, Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo, left, and Wa Lone, are handcuffed as they are escorted by police out of the court in Yangon, Myanmar on September 3.Credit:AP
US Vice-President Mike Pence said in a message on Twitter that the decision was deeply troubling and showed Myanmar's courts "failing a basic test in democracy."
"In the name of free & independent press, the gov't of Burma should release these journalists immediately. The world is watching," Pence added.
In their appeal arguments last month, defence lawyers had cited evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime. They asserted the lower court that tried the case had wrongly placed the burden of proof on the defendants.
The defence also said prosecutors had failed to prove the reporters gathered and collected secret information, sent information to an enemy of Myanmar or that they had an intention to harm national security.
Explaining his verdict, Judge Aung Naing said the reporters had behaved in a way that showed they intended to harm the country.
The judge cited meetings between reporter Wa Lone and members of the security forces as well as a notebook found at the journalist's house that contained the phone number of a member of the Arakan Army, an armed ethnic rebel group he had reported on while covering peace negotiations several years ago.
Pan Ei Mon, right, wife of Reuters journalist Wa Lone, walks together with Chit Su Win, left, wife of Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo, as they leave the High Court on Friday.Credit:AP
Wa Lone had testified during the trial that the phone number did not work and he did not have contact with the rebel group.
"Action can be taken against them if, judging by their behaviour and characteristics, it appears they will harm the national security and interests of the country," said Aung Naing.
He said the defence had failed to prove the arrests were a set-up by authorities.
"I lost all my hope," a weeping Chit Su Win, the wife of reporter Kyaw Soe Oo, said after the verdict.
Britain called on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to look at whether due process was followed.
Asked about the case by BBC radio, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, to "recognise that, as someone who fought for democracy in Burma, she should be taking a personal interest in the future of these two brave journalists".
World leaders are calling on Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene on behalf of the two journalists.Credit:AP
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not available for comment.
Standing outside the court building in Yangon where the judgment was pronounced, Kristian Schmidt, the European Union ambassador to Myanmar, said the ruling was a "miscarriage of justice and it gives us great concern for the independence of the justice system of Myanmar".
Defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung, speaking after the ruling, said his team would discuss the option of a supreme court appeal with the two reporters. "We are very disappointed with the judgment," he said.
Before their arrest, the reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar's Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017.
The operation sent more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, according to United Nations' estimates.
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