Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have spent more than a year in jail after being accused of breaching Official Secrets Act
Two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar for their reporting of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims have been pardoned and released after spending more than 500 days in jail.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December 2017 and accused of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, and have been imprisoned in Yangon’s Insein jail ever since.
The pair were released on Tuesday as part of an amnesty of 6,520 prisoners by President Win Myint. The chief of Insein prison, Zaw Zaw, confirmed Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been freed.
Speaking moments after his release, Wa Lone said: “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom. I am a journalist and I am going to continue to be.”
Images showed Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s emotional reunion with their wives and children hours after being released. Wa Lone’s first child, Thet Htar Angel, was born while he was behind bars so this was the first time he was able embrace his daughter as a free man.
Kyaw Soe Oo was pictured holding his daughter, three-year-old Moe Thin Wai Zan, tightly. During the trial she would steal brief embraces with her father outside the courtroom before he was bundled back to jail and would cry “Papa, Papa!” as the van drove off. “Now the three of us can hug each other and we are so happy for that,” said his wife Chit Su Win.
Stephen J Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, said he was “enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo”.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” Adler said.
Amal Clooney, who joined the legal team working on their case a year ago, paid tribute to the “incredible determination” of Reuters “in their pursuit of justice for their brave reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo”.
“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” said Clooney. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”
Responding to the news, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt emphasised that he had personally raised Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s case with Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, back in September.
“I am extremely grateful she has listened to me and many others and responded to a clear miscarriage of justice. In a world where media freedom is under attack this is a rare glimmer of hope,” tweeted Hunt.
He later said he hoped the release marked the first step in a bigger re-evaluation of the Myanmar government’s approach on the need for accountability for the alleged genocide of the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine province.
“Obviously we hope that is can be a the start of a new chapter of our relations with Myanmar and that same openness can be applied to what is happened to the Rohingya in Rakhine province,” he told the BBC.
Dan Chugg, the British ambassador to Myanmar, highlighted the judicial failings that had led to the pair being jailed. “These journalists were convicted in a case which did not follow due process and ignored the concept of innocent until proven guilty,” said Chugg. “In taking the decision to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo just a few days after the supreme court’s final decision, the Myanmar government has recognised the shortcomings of the earlier judicial procedures and demonstrated its commitment to upholding the rule of law.”
At the time of their arrest, the pair were working on an in-depth investigation into the brutal violence carried out against the Rohingya in Rahkine state by Myanmar’s military in August 2017 which forced more than 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh and led to accusations of genocide. This year, the pair were given the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the massacre of Rohingya civilians.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Myanmar nationals who work for the international news agency, have continuously maintained their innocence and stated they were set up by the police who planted official papers on them at a meeting.
After a drawn-out trial which was widely regarded as a sham, with flimsy evidence and contradictory witnesses, including a policeman who told the court he had been instructed to set up the sting operation, the pair were sentenced to seven years in prison in September.
The pardon of the pair, by the Myanmar president, comes after 16 months of mounting pressure from international governments, diplomats, human rights organisations and even religious figures, which up to this point had appeared to fall on deaf ears. Aung San Suu Kyi has also repeatedly rebuffed calls by figures such as British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and US vice president Mike Pence for her to pardon the pair, and within Myanmar there has been little sympathy for them.
Their long-awaited release came one month after the highest court in Myanmar, the supreme court, rejected the final judicial appeal to overturn their sentence. The Myanmar government also did not chose to pardon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in the annual New Year amnesty this year, which saw 9,000 prisoners released.
It is unclear why the decision to pardon the pair was made now. However, this week senior diplomats and international officials are in Myanmar to discuss the situation in Rahkine with the Myanmar government, in a meeting of the International Advisory Commission. The commission was set up in 2017 to help Myanmar implement recommendations made by late former UN head Kofi Anan on resolving the ongoing conflict in Rahkine state.
While the Myanmar government insists it has implemented most of Anan’s recommendations, the situation in Rahkine, and the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, has not improved.
Present at their release from prison on Tuesday was Lord Ara Darzi, a member of Britain’s House of Lords who is on the International Advisory Commission. He said he had been involved in “months of dialogue” with the Myanmar government, Reuters and the UN as well as various governments and international organisations, which he did not name, to negotiate the pardoning of the journalists.
“I am delighted that the Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been granted a pardon, released from custody, and are with their loved ones once more,” said Darzi. “This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”
News of the release was greeted with a relief by organisations around the world.
“We congratulate Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on walking free from unjust imprisonment and applaud they have now been reunited with their families,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia. “These courageous investigative journalists should have never been arrested, much less imprisoned, in the first place and their release was long overdue.”
A statement from the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar said: “The UN in Myanmar welcomes the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from prison. The UN in Myanmar considers the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of government’s commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour