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Reuters reporters freed after more than 500 days in Myanmar jail

Two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar for breaking the Official Secrets Act walked free from prison on Tuesday (photo) after spending more than 500 days behind bars.

Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, had been convicted in September and sentenced to seven years in a case that raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates. They continuously maintained their innocence and stated they were set up by the police who planted official papers on them.

They were released under a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners on Tuesday. It is customary in Myanmar for authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of the traditional New Year, which began on 17 April.

Swamped by media and well-wishers as they walked through the gates of Yangon’s Insein Prison, a grinning Wa Lone gave a thumbs up and said he was grateful for the international efforts to secure their freedom.

“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” he said.

Kyaw Soe Oo smiled and waved to reporters.

The two were then driven away by Reuters colleagues and reunited with their wives and children.

Before their arrest in December 2017, they had been working on an 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 report the two men authored, featuring testimony from perpetrators, witnesses and families of the victims, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, adding to a number of accolades they received for their journalism.

Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said: “We are 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.”

The Reuters journalists were released to representatives of Reuters and to Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon and health care expert who has served as a member of an advisory group to Myanmar’s government on reforms in Rakhine State.

“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances,” he said in a statement.

Darzi said discussions about the pardon for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had involved the Myanmar government, Reuters, the United Nations and representatives of other governments. He did not elaborate.

A Reuters spokesman said Darzi had made the company aware earlier this year of his efforts to secure the journalists’ release.

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,” she said. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.” ■