April 19, 2018 / 5:14 PM / a month ago

U.S. official calls on Myanmar to free journalists

DHAKA (Reuters) - U.S. envoy Sam Brownback called on Thursday for the release of journalists jailed in Myanmar while covering the plight of ethnic Rohingya Muslims forced to flee a military crackdown.

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone gestures to the media as he is escorted by police after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Brownback spoke in Bangladesh, where he was on a mission to see at first hand the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya crammed into refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar region bordering Myanmar.

“The journalists should be released who are in jail in Myanmar,” Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told a news conference in Dhaka, without naming any individuals or their employers.

The United States is among several governments pressing for the release of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been held in Myanmar since December.

A court is deliberating over whether they will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing secret government papers - an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Aside from the U.S. administration, Canada, Britain and several other European countries, as well as top United Nations and EU officials have called for the journalists’ release.

On April 11, a Myanmar judge rejected a defense request to dismiss the case against the two reporters for lack of evidence. The judge said he wanted to hear eight remaining prosecution witnesses out of the 25 listed, according to defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.

Brownback praised the media’s work covering events since the Rohingya crisis began in August, and said journalists should be allowed to move freely in Myanmar and the region to report on developments.

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo is escorted by police before a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Brownback described the campaign against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing against a Muslim minority”.

Myanmar rejects that description, saying its action was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation in response to a series of militant attacks on security posts and an army camp in its northwestern Rakhine state.

Earlier this month, however, seven Myanmar soldiers were sentenced to 10 years “with hard labor in a remote area” for participating in a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in Rakhine last September, the army said.

According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine.

Asked about possible U.S. measures against Myanmar over the crisis, Brownback told the news conference: “We will continue to investigate to get a clear picture.”

He added that several members of the U.S. Congress and Vice President Mike Pence had expressed deep concern to him.

Myanmar reported on Saturday the first return to Rakhine state of a refugee Rohingya family from Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government and the United Nations refugee agency said they had no knowledge of any such repatriation.

Reporting by Serajul Quadir; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Roche

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