A judge in Myanmar on Monday sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years' jail each with hard labor for collecting state secrets, in a high-profile press freedom case.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested in Yangon in December under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Wa Lone told supporters in the court he was not afraid. "I believe in democracy and freedom," he said. "I never did anything wrong."
The pair had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in western Rakhine State and said they were set up by police, who gave them documents just before arresting them.
"It is bad for freedom of press, it is bad for democracy, it is bad for Myanmar," Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the two men, said after the verdict.
UN investigators said last week that Myanmar committed grave human rights abuses amounting to genocide in Rakhine state, from where more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were driven out during a military crackdown launched last year.
Judge Ye Lwin said the two reporters had been found with a number of top secret documents pertaining to national security, both in their hands at the time of the arrest and on their mobile phones.
"They tried many times to get restricted documents and pass them to others," he told the courtroom.
The 1923 law forbids collecting or publishing documents or information that "might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy."
The two journalists and one prosecution witness, a policeman named Moe Yan Naing, have maintained that the pair were handed documents shortly before their arrest in December.
Judge Ye Lwin, however, discounted the testimony of Moe Yan Naing as he was not present.
The judge also levelled the sentence due to documents found on the pairs' phones at the time of the arrest.
As the judge did not mention the terms of imprisonment, it automatically meant "with hard labour" according to Myanmar law, said Khin Maung Zaw.
Myanmar's de facto leader and one-time democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who ended decades of military rule when she came to power in 2016, has been criticized for presiding over a backsliding in press freedom.
Since 2017, at least 11 journalists have been arrested, many under archaic repressive laws.
British Ambassador Dan Chugg said the verdict had dealt a "hammer blow" to the rule of law and said Judge Ye Lwin "appeared to have ignored evidence."
US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel said it was "sad ... for all the people of Myanmar who have worked so hard to promote fundamental freedoms."
"Freedom of expression and rule of law are fundamental in a democracy and this case has passed a long shadow over both today," he said.
The ruling could not "be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the government as a matter of urgency," Reuters editors-in-chief Stephen J Adler said.
"We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum," he continued.
"We will take any option to get them out, including an appeal," said Khin Maung Zaw, adding that an appeal would need to be launched within 60 days.
Source: International Islamic News Agency