HANOI — Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Thursday defended a court’s decision last week to sentence two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison in a trial widely seen as farcical and a major setback for free expression in the country.
The pair, she said, “were not jailed because they were journalists” but because an “open court” decided they broke a colonial-era secrets act.
Her comments on the case, the first since the pair were sentenced amid widespread international condemnation, dim hopes that her civilian government will offer them a pardon and work to secure their freedom.
The judgment handed down by the Myanmar court against the two journalists had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all,” Suu Kyi said, speaking at regional World Economic Forum meetings in Hanoi.
“If anyone feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” Suu Kyi said. “They were not jailed because they were journalists. . . . The court has decided that they broke the Official Secrets Act.”
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were detained in December and prosecuted and sentenced under the colonial-era law, which media watchdogs say has helped muzzle independent reporting and punish anyone who obtains state secrets and intends to share them.
At the time of their arrest, the two journalists, both Myanmar nationals, were working on an investigation into the killings of 10 Rohingya Muslim men at the hands of the military and Buddhist militants. They say they were simply doing their job.
“We have no fear. We know what we did. It was just about getting information” for our story, Wa Lone said after his sentencing.
The killings were part of a broader crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in August 2017 that sent almost 800,000 fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations report said the actions of Myanmar’s military were tantamount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
At the WEF event, Suu Kyi said the situation in Rakhine state, where Myanmar’s Rohingya are concentrated, “could have been handled better.”
An international chorus has condemned the Myanmar court’s decision. The critics include the U.S. government. Vice President Pence said in a tweet last week that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should “be commended — not imprisoned — for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings.”
“Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy,” he said.
Suu Kyi, in her comments Thursday, challenged critics to read the judgment against the two journalists, which she said she has done.
“I don’t think anyone has bothered to read it,” she said. “I would like them to read the judgment and point out where there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
The judgment states that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo obtained the documents with the intention of sharing them with militant and “terrorist” groups in Rakhine. Attorneys for the pair said that the assertion was “pretty ridiculous” and that the journalists were acting within the law.
The two journalists could appeal their case, Suu Kyi added. But many had hoped that Suu Kyi — a Nobel laureate who was a darling of the global media while under house arrest at the hands of Myanmar’s military — would use her power as de facto leader of the civilian government to arrange a presidential pardon.
Both men have young daughters. Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to a girl in recent weeks while her husband was in jail.
Speaking last week at a news conference after the men were sentenced, Pan Ei Mon said she was disappointed in Suu Kyi, who previously had made similar comments about the journalists breaking the law.
“I am really sad about that,” Pan Ei Mon said, according to a report from Reuters. “The person who we really admired for our whole lives misunderstood us like that.”