A Myanmar court on Wednesday rejected a motion to drop a case against two Reuters journalists arrested while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, even as seven soldiers were given lengthy sentences for their role in the killings.
Reporters Wa Lone, 32 and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27 were detained in December and accused of violating the country's Official Secrets Act for possessing material relating to security operations in conflict-hit Rakhine state.
Myanmar has faced global condemnation and accusations of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing and genocide as some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine to Bangladesh following a military crackdown on insurgents.
The government rejects the allegations and says it was defending itself against attacks from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which occurred on August 25.
The two reporters have been held in Yangon's Insein prison since their arrest while facing hearings to determine whether the case will go to trial, with 17 out of 25 witnesses having given testimony.
Their lawyers asked the court last week to dismiss the case, citing in part troubling discrepancies in witness statements, but the motion was swiftly rejected in a Yangon courtroom packed with supporters, family and media.
"The court decided that the proposal from the defendants' lawyer to release the defendants before all the witnesses were cross-examined has been rejected," judge Ye Lwin said.
The pair had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya men on September 2 in the Rakhine village of Inn Din that was carried out by security forces and local villagers.
The military admitted that the atrocity took place and Reuters later published the story while the reporters were in prison.
- Soldiers jailed -
In a rare punishment in a country where the military has long operated with impunity, seven soldiers were sentenced to jail with hard labour for their part in the killings, according to a Facebook post by the army chief late Tuesday.
The army has claimed the Rohingya men were "terrorists" but has not presented any evidence to back up the claim.
Wa Lone referred to the sentencing of the soldiers as he was being directed back into the police van following the hearing.
"Those who killed people in the mass killing were given a sentence of 10 years. We were simply trying to find out the news and report this and we are facing a trial that could result in us going to prison for 14 years," he said.
One of his lawyers Than Zaw Aung also compared the cases.
"My question is why are the journalists still in detention in prison if their report is true?"
The US embassy in Yangon said that while the verdict handed down in the Inn Din massacre case was an encouraging sign, "it merely underscores that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who sought to expose that crime, should be free".
The prosecution of the journalists has proceeded despite international calls for their release. Last month Reuters announced that prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney had joined the legal team.
Reuters president Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that the company is "deeply disappointed" with the court's decision.
"We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on issues in Myanmar in an independent and impartial way," he said.
"They have not violated any laws in the course of their newsgathering and were simply doing their jobs."
James Gomez, Amnesty International's regional director, called the court development "appalling" and pointed to an "alarming erosion" in media freedom in Myanmar.
"The decision to press forward with this case sends a clear message to journalists operating in the country that certain topics remain off-limits, with dire consequences for those who dare address them, however peacefully," he said.
Family members of the reporters were in tears after the ruling.
But Wa Lone, who turned 32 on Wednesday and was brought cake by his friends, still expressed optimism.
"I believe in democracy. I also believe that one day we will be released because of freedom of expression," he said.