World

Two Reuters reporters freed in Myanmar after more than 500 days in jail

- Reuters, YANGON

May 7, 2019-

Two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after they were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act walked free from a prison on the outskirts of Yangon on Tuesday after spending more than 500 days behind bars.

The two reporters, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, had been convicted in September and sentenced to seven years in jail, in a case that raised questions about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates.

They were released under a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners on Tuesday. President Win Myint has pardoned thousands of other prisoners in mass amnesties since last month.

It is customary in Myanmar for authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of the traditional New Year, which began on April 17.

Reuters has said the two men did not commit any crime and had called for their release.

Swamped by media and well-wishers as they walked through the gates of Insein Prison, a grinning Wa Lone gave a thumbs up and said he was grateful for the international efforts to secure their freedom.

“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” he said.

Kyaw Soe Oo smiled and waved to reporters.

The two were then driven away by Reuters colleagues and reunited with their wives and children.

Before their arrest in December 2017, they had been working on an 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 U.N. estimates.

The report the two men authored, featuring testimony from perpetrators, witnesses and families of the victims, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in May, adding to a number of accolades received by the pair for their journalism. (reut.rs/2KFTSgQ) (reut.rs/2M5benE)

Calls to a spokesman for the Myanmar government were not immediately answered.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler welcomed the news.

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” Adler said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was he was relieved to learn of the release, a spokesman said. The United Nations in Myanmar said it saw the release as a sign of the government’s commitment to the transition to democracy.

The U.S. embassy also welcomed the release and said it was glad the two could return to their families.

‘DIALOGUE WORKS’

Myanmar’s Supreme Court had rejected the journalists’ final appeal in April. They had petitioned the country’s top court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime, after the Yangon High Court dismissed an earlier appeal in January.

The reporters’ wives wrote a letter to the government in April pleading for a pardon, not, they said, because their husbands had done anything wrong, but because it would allow them to be released from prison and reunited with their families.

The Reuters journalists were released at the prison to representatives of Reuters and to Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon and health care expert who has served as a member of an advisory group to Myanmar’s government on reforms in Rakhine State.

“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances,” Darzi said in a statement.

Darzi said discussions about the pardon for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had involved the Myanmar government, Reuters, the United Nations and representatives of other governments.

He did not elaborate.

A Reuters spokesman said Darzi had made the company aware earlier this year of his efforts to secure the journalists’ release.

Darzi has been a member of an advisory commission that was formed in 2016 to see through the advice from a panel headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan on solving the long-running conflict in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The state was the home to most Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown on the region in 2017.

Reactions to release of Reuters journalists 

Following are comments and reactions:

SPOKESMAN FOR UN SECRETARY GENERAL ANTONIO GUTERRES:

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was relieved to learn of the release of the Reuters reporters, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

STEVE ADLER, REUTERS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF:

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”

LORD ARA DARZI, MEMBER OF MYANMAR ADVISORY GROUP:

“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

“The power of dialogue must be turned towards securing a lasting peace in Rakhine State and the return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, whose desperate plight continues. This is essential if Myanmar is to build on today’s progress so that all its citizens can live together in dignity in the hope of a better tomorrow.”

TUN KHIN, PRESIDENT OF BURMESE ROHINGYA ORGANISATION UK:

“The only people that should be locked up for the Rohingya genocide are those that committed it, not those that helped expose it.

“The Rohingya community stands with U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo today, just as we have every day of their unlawful imprisonment by this complicit Burmese regime.”

SHAWN CRISPIN, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS:

“CPJ ... reiterates that Myanmar should never have charged and jailed them in the first place.

“May their release herald a new era of press freedom in Myanmar, where reporters no longer fear reprisal merely for doing their jobs.”

PHIL ROBERTSON, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH:

“These courageous investigative journalists should have never been arrested, much less imprisoned, in the first place and their release is long overdue.”

“Time to act on the problem that Myanmar’s faltering respect for media freedom indicates the dire situation facing human rights and democracy as the country moves toward national elections in 2020.”

UNITED NATIONS IN MYANMAR:

“The UN in Myanmar welcomes the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from prison. The UN in Myanmar considers the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of government’s commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

“The UN stands ready to continue to support Myanmar in its complex transition process.”

AMAL CLOONEY, COUNSEL TO WA LONE, KYAW SOE OO AND REUTERS:

“Since taking on this case over a year ago, I have witnessed incredible determination by Reuters, in particular editor-in-chief Steve Adler and Chief Counsel Gail Gove, in their pursuit of justice for their brave reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“It is inspiring to see a news organization so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism.

“It has been an honor to represent Reuters and the two journalists in this case and I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”

SUZANNE NOSSEL, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF PEN AMERICA:

“Although Myanmar has failed shamefully to redress the injustice of their trumped-up arrest and conviction on spurious evidence, we are relieved that their ordeal behind bars is over.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have proven their courage and fortitude, never once wavering in their claims of innocence.

Published: 07-05-2019 11:53

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