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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi attends the opening session of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, November 13, 2017.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

A Myanmar court has jailed two Reuters journalists who investigated the slaughter of Muslim Rohingya in what the reporters’ supporters called a dark omen for the country’s democratic development.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison after a judge found them guilty of securing confidential documents and transgressing Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. Their incarceration will include hard labour, said a Reuters lawyer who pledged to fight the ruling.

“We know what we did. We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” Mr. Wa Lone said after the verdict was delivered Monday. He stood in handcuffs, both hands making a thumbs-up gesture, before he was taken away in a police pickup truck.

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The Myanmar government has defended the case against the reporters as a fair administration of justice.

But critics have called their trial a black mark on Myanmar’s nascent democracy under its de facto civilian leader, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. On Monday, the lengthy prison sentence drew condemnation from foreign governments, human-rights advocates and the Reuters News Agency.

In a statement issued Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is “profoundly disappointed” by the decision. “Today’s ruling does not reflect the facts of the case,” said Ms. Freeland, who worked for Reuters before her career in politics. “The verdict seriously jeopardizes the prospects for freedom of expression and democracy, and the fair and transparent application of law in Myanmar, both now and in the future.”

Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said the move was a major step backward in the country’s transition to democracy that “cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.”

“There was at least some modest hope that the Reuters verdict would help to show that prudence and rationality can still prevail within the Myanmar political context,” said Nicholas Farrelly, who studies Myanmar at Australian National University, where he is associate dean in College of Asia and the Pacific. But, he said, “some of those who have been most aggressive in stomping on Myanmar’s democracy are its so-called democrats” – including Ms. Suu Kyi.

The ruling came days after a United Nations fact-finding mission recommended that some of the country’s top military leaders be prosecuted for “genocidal intent,” and almost exactly a year after the event that the two journalists had worked to expose: the slaughter and mass burial on Sept. 2, 2017, of 10 Muslim Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar soldiers.

The Reuters investigation uncovered the identities of each of the dead men and included an interview with Soe Chay, a retired soldier who had helped dig their grave. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead,” he told Reuters.

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Reuters reporter Wa Lone's wife Pan Ei Mon (second right) tries to catch his hand as he arrives at court in Yangon, Myanmar, December 27, 2017.

Stringer ./Reuters

By the time that report was published in February, Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe had already been arrested, after accepting confidential documents in a Yangon hotel from police. Other officers then arrested them, the journalists said. They alleged that they were entrapped and had pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Journalists were frequently sent to jail during Myanmar’s decades of military rule, but the advent of openly contested elections, and the elevation to power of Ms. Suu Kyi in 2015, had created expectations that the country would chart a different course, one with greater protections for the rights of independent inquiry and expression against military dictates.

Instead, Ms. Suu Kyi has been accused of standing silently by as the military, which she does not control, committed what the international community has described as atrocities against the Rohingya. Nearly 725,000 people have fled to Bangladesh since last August, many of them Rohingya, a Muslim minority largely denied citizenship in Myanmar. Rohingya refugees have described a military-led campaign of shootings, mass rape and the systematic razing of homes. The United States, the United Nations, Canada and others have described military actions as “crimes against humanity.”

The military has largely contested allegations of wrongdoing, however, and the arrest and trial of the Reuters journalists “fits a consistent pattern of official denial,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon. “The government’s soul has been revealed, and it’s a very dark and nasty soul," he said.

In Myanmar, the state-run media has defended the trial of the Reuters journalists as the proper exercise of governance. “The reform activities taking place in Myanmar are being done with the intent to provide genuine peace in people’s lives. Stability, after all, leads to development. To achieve these goals, our country’s judicial system and the courts must be strong and reliable for justice to prevail,” the Global New Light of Myanmar wrote in June.

Myanmar’s rulers came under harsh criticism after the court verdict. Dan Chugg, the British ambassador to Myanmar, said the case had “struck a hammer blow for the rule of law. We have attended the trial throughout and we believe that the judge has ignored the evidence presented to him, [and ruled] against Myanmar’s own laws.”

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The U.S. embassy to Myanmar, in a statement on Facebook, called it “a major setback to the government of Myanmar’s stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms.”

The ruling rekindled fears among Myanmar journalists already worried that their profession is under attack. “We are working for justice. We are helping people in this country. But it feels now like the government sees us as criminals,” said Lawi Weng, a reporter for Irrawaddy Magazine who spent two months in prison last year before the military withdrew a case against him and several other journalists.

“In the future, no one would dare report on the case of Rohingya or other rights abuses in the country. That, I think, is the intention of the government and the military.” He has stopped travelling to conflict zones since his own arrest.

In Myanmar, he said, military backers have taken to social media to cheer the jailing of reporters whose work they saw as deserving of punishment, while Ms. Suu Kyi continues to enjoy public support.

But Mr. Lawi Weng has lost faith in a woman he once saw as a fellow supporter of democratic ideals. “The army still rules the country,” he said. And Ms. Suu Kyi “has betrayed us.”

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