YANGOON: Lawyers lodged an appeal Monday to free two Reuters journalists jailed for their reporting on Myanmar's Rohingya crisis, decrying the sentence as a "mistake" that has already resulted in the pair being locked up for a year.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested in December 2017 and later sentenced to seven-year prison terms for what prosecutors said was a breach of official secrets law for the possession of classified material on security operations.
Reuters disputed the charge and said the two were set up by police after probing the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims during a military crackdown.
Their conviction in September sparked widespread global condemnation, including from US Vice President Mike Pence, who asked civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene. But calls for their release have fallen flat inside Myanmar, where Suu Kyi has yet to speak up for the reporters publicly.
Their trial was criticised by rights groups as a sham and payback for uncovering the September 2017 massacre in Inn Din village in Myanmar's Rakhine state. During the trial a whistle-blowing policeman told the court his superior ordered a sting to entrap the reporters.
On Monday lawyers for the pair submitted an appeal to the High Court.
"This seven-year jail sentence is a mistake," the journalists' lawyer L Khun Ring Pan told the bench, in a hearing attended by embassy officials and free media advocates as well as the wives of the jailed journalists. "They were trying to find out who was involved with the Inn Din case. That's why they tried to meet the police. They did not ask for anything secret." More than 720,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state to Bangladesh since the military's crackdown last August, bringing accounts of rape, arson and mass killings.
UN investigators have said the evidence warrants charges of genocide against the country's top generals, but the army maintains it was defending itself against Rohingya militants.
"We hope for fairness. We want them to be free," Wa Lone's wife Pan Ei Mon told AFP while a second lawyer Than Zaw Aung said "we hope to hear good news" when the appeal judge rules over coming days.
Media advocates say the journalists' convictions under the British colonial-era official secrets law aimed to muzzle media investigating allegations of atrocities in Rakhine and other sensitive issues in Myanmar as it emerges from decades of junta rule.
"This is unacceptable for a country that claims to be transitioning towards democracy," Daniel Bastard from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told AFP. Myanmar dropped six places in RSF's latest World Press Freedom Index. Outside the country the two young men have been feted with awards presented in their absence and hailed as heroes.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were also jointly named Time Magazine's Person of the Year this month, alongside other persecuted and slain journalists, as concerns grow for deteriorating press freedoms around the world.
The anniversary of their arrest was marked by newsrooms publishing photos of their staff flashing two thumbs up, a defiant gesture Wa Lone made at court that became synonymous with the duo's resilience.