Burmese nationals Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested in December under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and face up to 14 years in jail.
The journalists had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in the impoverished, resource-rich state.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being prosecuted simply because they reported the news. I have reviewed the case file, and it is clear beyond doubt that the two journalists are innocent and should be released immediately,” said the wife of Hollywood’s George Clooney.
“The outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech,” the British-Lebanese barrister’s statement said.
In 2015, Clooney was part of the legal team working towards the release of two Al Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt and has since represented Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was captured and tortured by so-called Islamic State.
Gail Gove, Reuters’ legal chief, said hiring Clooney, who is known for taking on high-profile human rights cases, would strengthen the media group’s international legal expertise and broaden efforts to free the employees.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for their release.
The case is seen internationally as an effort to intimidate the media, especially when handling human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority near the Bangladeshi border.
The Rohingya say they are descended from Arab traders who sailed to the area about 1,000 years ago, while many of Myanmar’s Buddhists regard the Muslim community as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The domestic media often tautologically refers to the persecuted community as “extremist Bengali terrorists” and refuses to use the word “minority” because it implies citizenship.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, said in February that the pair were not arrested for their reporting but were accused of “illegally possessing confidential government documents”.
The civilian National League for Democracy government is largely powerless to control the military in Rakhine, as the generals have constitutional control of border security and defence matters.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh after the military launched a crackdown after attacks on August 25, 2017, which were blamed on a Muslim militant group.
Numerous Rohingya villages have been burned down, hundreds of women have been raped and thousands of innocent civilians killed in the “clearance operation”.
Amal Clooney. Picture credit: Wikimedia