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Conviction of Myanmar journalists a blow to human rights and democracy: Freeland

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says the conviction of two Reuters journalists for covering the Rohingya crisis undermines the rule of law and freedom of the press in Myanmar.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced Monday to seven years in prison for illegally possessing government documents in a guilty verdict Freeland says is not supported by the facts in the case.

In a statement issued Monday, Freeland says Canada is joining the international chorus calling for their immediate release.

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Freeland says the verdict in the case “seriously jeopardizes” the idea of democracy in Myanmar, which requires the ability to report facts without fear of retaliation, violence or imprisonment.

The two journalists were reporting on a massacre of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military in 2017 and say they were framed by police.

The United Kingdom and the United States have also condemned the verdicts as have numerous international human rights organizations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also called for the journalists’ release, while the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar issued a statement saying there were “clear flaws” in the case and that the verdict was “deeply troubling.”

Freeland, who herself worked for Reuters before her political career, said Canada will use every opportunity to stand up for human rights and freedom of expression.

“This verdict gravely undermines the rule of law and freedom of the press in Myanmar, and betrays the decades-long struggle by the Myanmar people for democracy,” Freeland said in a written statement issued by her office.

“Today’s ruling does not reflect the facts of the case.”

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Former Liberal leader Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar to investigate the Rohingya crisis, said the courage of the two journalists is “worthy of the world’s praise and attention.”

“They were doing their job, and were framed by security forces, on the evidence as heard in court,” he said on Twitter.

United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet said Myanmar should “immediately and unconditionally” release the two journalists along with any other journalists being held in Myanmar for exercising their legitimate right to free expression.

“Their conviction sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly,” she said.

The Rohingya are a stateless people who lived primarily in Rakhine State on Myanmar’s west coast. A majority of them are Muslim and have faced repeated persecution, including military crackdowns that began in 2016. An estimated 900,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence.

In his final report to Parliament earlier this year Rae called on Canada to increase humanitarian aid for the Rohingya and express a willingness to accept Rohingya refugees who wish to move to Canada.

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