Detained Myanmar journalists Wa Lone, (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo (3rd-R) are escorted by police from the courthouse as they are taken to prison after the first day of trial in Yangon, July 16, 2018.
Detained Myanmar journalists Wa Lone, (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo (3rd-R) are escorted by police from the courthouse as they are taken to prison after the first day of trial in Yangon, July 16, 2018.

The U.S. on Wednesday condemned the Myanmar Supreme Court decision upholding the convictions of two Reuters journalists for violating the country's Official Secrets Act by uncovering the Myanmar military's massacre of Rohingya Muslims.

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday's ruling against Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, "despite serious irregularities in the case against them, sends a profoundly negative signal about freedom of expression and the protection of journalists in Burma," the southeast Asia country's colonial name.

The statement said the U.S. "is deeply concerned by recent arrests of reporters, political activists, civil society members, and satirical performers in Burma.  We urge Burma to protect hard-earned freedoms, prevent further backsliding on recent democratic gains, and reunite these journalists with their families."

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were covering the brutal military campaign in Rakhine state that drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh in August 2017. 

They were arrested in December 2017 after meeting with two police officers at a restaurant in Yangon and being given a stack of documents. The pair were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya by police and soldiers in the village of Inn Din. They were convicted last September and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The Myanmar Supreme Court did not provide any further detail on why it rejected the pair’s appeal.  Their lawyers said the journalists were set up by police as a reason to have their original conviction thrown out.  At one point in their trial, a law enforcement official testified he planted documents on the two men.

FILE - Residents carry the body of an ethnic Rakhine woman for burial in Rathedaung township, after fresh fighting in Rakhine state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, Feb. 21, 2019.
Thousands Displaced by Intensified Fighting in Myanmar's Rakhine State

The U.N. Human Rights Office says more than 20,000 civilians in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State have been forced to flee their homes in recent weeks in the face of escalating fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

The U.N. condemns what appear to be indiscriminate attacks against civilians by the military, as well as violence perpetrated by armed fighters in Rakhine state.
 
It says it has received credible reports of the killing of civilians, burning of houses, arbitrary arrests, abductions and other forms of abuse.
 
U.N.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their work in uncovering the massacre, which they shared with two colleagues who completed the story after their conviction.

"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did," Reuters Chief Counsel Gail Gove said in a statement Tuesday in response to the rejection of their appeal. "Instead, they were victims of a police set-up to silence their truthful reporting. We will continue to do all we can to free them as soon as possible."

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he remains concerned about the continued detention of the two reporters. "It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State," his spokesperson said. "The Secretary-General has repeatedly urged for their release and for the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and information."
 
The arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have sparked international outrage among free speech and human rights activists, who saw the case as Myanmar's first real test of freedom of expression after embracing democracy in 2016 following decades of repressive military rule.
 
A special United Nations investigative panel has accused Myanmar's military of carrying out numerous atrocities during last year's crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims "with genocidal intent" and is calling for the prosecution of its top generals, including the army's commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.