NAYPYITAW — Myanmar’s Supreme Court was scheduled on Tuesday to hear the appeal of two Reuters journalists imprisoned for breaking a colonial-era official secrets law, in a case that has raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.
Reporters Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo have spent more than 15 months in detention since they were arrested in December 2017 while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslim civilians involving Myanmar soldiers.
A judge found the two guilty under the Official Secrets Act in September and sentenced them to seven years in prison.
Both remain separated from their young daughters. The wife of 32-year-old Ko Wa Lone gave birth to their first child last year while Ko Wa Lone was behind bars. Ko Kyaw Soe Oo celebrated his 29th birthday in Yangon’s Insein jail this month.
Their convictions were heavily criticized by press freedom advocates and Western diplomats, putting additional pressure on Myanmar leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who took power in 2016 amid a transition from military rule.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in September, the week after their conviction, that the reporters’ case had nothing to do with press freedom as the men had been jailed for handling official secrets, not because they were journalists.
At the Supreme Court in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday, a judge will hear arguments for and against their appeal, alongside 17 other cases, according to a listing published on the court’s website.
“Myanmar’s Supreme Court has the opportunity to correct the serious miscarriage of justice inflicted on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for the last 15 months,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement.
“They are honest, admirable journalists who did not break the law, and they should be freed as a matter of urgency.”
The appeal, submitted last month, cited lack of proof of a crime and evidence that the pair was set up by police.
During eight months of hearings, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo testified that two policemen they had not met before handed them papers rolled up in a newspaper during a meeting at a Yangon restaurant on Dec. 12. Almost immediately afterwards, they said, they were bundled into a car by plainclothes officers.
A police captain testified that, prior to the restaurant meeting, a senior officer had ordered subordinates to plant documents on Ko Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.
The prosecution said the reporters were caught holding secret documents at a routine traffic stop.
The high court in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon rejected an earlier appeal in January.
Before their arrest, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo had been working on a Reuters 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 United Nations estimates.