HONG KONG — Two Pulitzer-winning Reuters journalists held in Myanmar for more than 500 days for their coverage of the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims were freed from jail Tuesday, ending a prolonged detention that tainted Myanmar and its Nobel laureate civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of an annual amnesty that has freed thousands of prisoners since last month. An additional 6,000 people were released Tuesday.
Myanmar officials offered no immediate explanation for the release of the two journalists, who had exhausted all their legal options after Myanmar’s highest court rejected their appeal late last month.
But Suu Kyi — winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — has been under significant pressure from Vice President Pence and others to intervene in the case and free the journalists. She had defended their detention and said they were not jailed for their reporting but because they were convicted of breaking colonial-era state secrecy laws.
The two journalists were accused in December 2017 of possessing secret documents but were widely believed to have been set up. In September they were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The journalists and their lawyers have insisted that they were merely doing their jobs as reporters, never had the chance to read the documents before they were detained and had not been planning to share state secrets.
The pair has received multiple honors and awards for their investigation into a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, the story they were working on at the time of their arrest. These include the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, which they won in April.
Their Reuters colleagues posted video and photos of the two journalists Tuesday walking out of the gates of Yangon’s Insein prison, smiling and each carrying a single bag with their few possessions. They were mobbed by photographers and onlookers upon their exit.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said in brief comments, thanking everyone around the world who helped secure his freedom. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
The 33-year-old is the father of a baby girl who was born while he was jailed. Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, also has a young daughter. Their wives had repeatedly appealed to the Myanmar government to pardon their husbands.
The two journalists have become a symbol of Myanmar’s fading democratic hopes and promise under Suu Kyi. Both men grew up in Myanmar’s dark days of military rule and worked as reporters during the country’s dramatic transition to a largely civilian-led government.
Suu Kyi’s administration initially was widely expected to end the arbitrary detention of government critics, free political prisoners and continue a media renaissance that the country was experiencing at the time.
Yet her government has instead clamped down on free expression and continued to use archaic and widely criticized laws to imprison people like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. When they were first arrested, they were held incommunicado, without access to their family or colleagues.
Their prosecution dragged on for months, with prosecution witnesses sharing absurd details during the trial. One police officer said he burned his own notes from the time of the arrests, and another kept checking notes written on his hand as he testified.
Domestically, there has been less sympathy for the pair. The Rohingya crisis has largely divided Myanmar and the international community, with an overwhelming majority within the country believing that the crackdown — which sent more than 800,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh in one of the world’s largest refugee crises — was justified.
Many in Myanmar took to social media to declare the two journalists traitors for exposing the massacre, and some suggested that they were paid to make Myanmar look bad. Their families have been subject to harassment and threats.
Tuesday’s prisoner release was the third such amnesty marking last month’s traditional new year holiday.
The journalists’ release was immediately and widely celebrated across the world. Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that the news agency was “enormously pleased” that the two had been freed.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” he said.
In a tweet, Pence hailed the development as “Great news!”
The two journalists “were jailed for doing their job reporting on atrocities committed against the Rohingya people. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!” Pence wrote.
President Trump, who has not publicly commented on the case, did not offer an immediate reaction. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among the journalists honored in Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year edition in a rebuke of the hostile treatment of reporters across the globe, including in the United States.
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, a nonprofit that defends the advancement of literature and human rights, said the journalists have proved their “courage and fortitude.”
These are “young men who have now proven themselves as world-renowned journalists,” she said. “They have long and important careers ahead of them carrying out the essential work of holding Myanmar’s fledgling new government accountable and keeping their country’s deserving public informed. They should now be allowed to return to their work without hindrance.”
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a nonprofit that tracks and assists political prisoners in Myanmar, estimates that 48 political prisoners are jailed in the country. Hundreds of others have been charged and are facing trial in Myanmar and abroad.
“Everyone should be released,” lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. “There are still some prisoners that have been jailed because of the freedom of expression. My own desire is for all of them to be freed.”
The journalists’ release Tuesday was unexpected and remained uncertain until the moment they were seen walking toward the prison gates. Their families were not there, waiting for news of their release at the Reuters office in Yangon.
Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, said she chose not to make the trip because her hopes for his release had been raised and dashed many times.
“I would not be able to stand the situation if we came [to the prison] to welcome them, but they were not released,” she said by phone. “I couldn’t even speak for a while when [Kyaw Soe Oo] called me telling me that he was released.”
When she told their young daughter that her father had been freed, the girl started dancing, Chit Su Win said.
Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong, Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.