The Supreme Court’s rejection upholds the journalists’ seven-year sentences and underscores the government’s unwillingness to free them despite overwhelming foreign pressure.
The two were sentenced in September by a district court after a months-long trial, in which a key prosecution witness admitted that the arrests were a setup. The case has drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups, foreign governments and media watchdogs as an attack on a free press and an indictment of Myanmar’s severely flawed judicial system.
It also has further tainted the country’s civilian leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has the power to free the reporters through her effective control of the presidency.
The two journalists were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims when they were arrested in December 2017. More than 730,000 members of the Rohingya minority have fled violence and persecution in the Buddhist-majority country since 2017. The journalists were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting this month.
“The Supreme Court upholds the conviction made by the previous court,” Judge Soe Naing said in a short statement read aloud at the court Tuesday morning in Naypyidaw, the capital. The process lasted about 30 seconds.
The high court in the city of Yangon rejected an appeal in January, citing insufficient evidence of the journalists’ innocence, so the defense team took the case to the Supreme Court.
Reuters chief counsel Gail Gove said in a statement that the journalists “did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did.”
“Instead, they were victims of a police setup to silence their truthful reporting,” Gove said. “We will continue to do all we can to free them as soon as possible.”
Khin Maung Zaw, an attorney for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, said in an interview that the pair told him recently that they did not wish to file another appeal to the Supreme Court, as allowed in the Myanmar legal system.
“Today’s ruling will make the international community lose faith in the country’s judicial system. That is the country’s loss,” he said.
“Though we’ve lost the case, we have won in the world, as the whole world is with us,” he added.
“We are not losing hope at all,” he said. “Though Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo decided not to carry on with the judiciary system, they still have a chance” through a presidential pardon or amnesty.
The journalists’ wives were in Naypyidaw, about 230 miles north of Yangon, for the ruling and held hands as the judge read his statement. They had hoped for their husbands’ imminent release or at least a reduction in their sentences.
“We were really hoping that the court would reduce the sentence and they would be released soon,” Pan Ei Mon, Wa Lone’s wife, said in an interview. She has given birth to a daughter while her husband has been in prison.
The men were also left out of a mass prisoner amnesty this month during Myanmar’s traditional New Year celebrations. The amnesty freed 9,535 prisoners, an overwhelming number of them behind bars for petty crimes. Rights groups in the country say that only two of those freed were political prisoners. More than 100 political prisoners are incarcerated.
The two Reuters journalists were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. The colonial-era law is used, press freedom groups and activists say, to muzzle independent reporting in the Southeast Asian nation, even though military rule has given way to a quasi-civilian government.
Violation of the law carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. At the time of their arrest, the two were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in a village in Rakhine state on Myanmar’s west coast.
Police officers asked the journalists to meet them on the night of Dec. 12, 2017, when they were handed rolled-up documents, their attorneys said.
Shortly after they left a restaurant where the meeting took place, the two said, they were stopped by other officers and accused of obtaining secret documents.
The military, which remains a powerful political force in Myanmar, sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison with hard labor in April for their roles in the massacre. In addition to his admission of guilt, a police captain testified that his superiors instructed him to trap Wa Lone, and a senior confidant of Suu Kyi described the incident as a setup. Nevertheless, the government has stood by the pair’s convictions.
Suu Kyi has said publicly that the two were not imprisoned for their work as journalists but because they broke the law. The judge, however, wrote in his verdict that the two were in possession of sensitive documents only because they were working as reporters.
The continued incarceration of the journalists is symptomatic of a wider crackdown on dissenting voices under Suu Kyi’s government, even though it is full of former political prisoners. In its annual World Press Freedom Index published this month, the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders noted that “media freedom is clearly not one of the priorities of the government.”
McLaughlin reported from Singapore.