HANOI / UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday that the detention of two Reuters journalists had nothing to do with freedom of expression and they could appeal against their seven-year sentence.
Suu Kyi, in her first public statement on the case since the two, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted last week, referring to the colonial law under which they were indicted.
"They were not detained because they were journalists, they were detained because … the court ruled that they broke the official secret code," she said at a World Economic Forum conference in Hanoi.
United Nations Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, described Suu Kyi's remarks as "unbelievable" in what appeared to be the US President's blatant direct blame for the Burmese leader.
"First, in denying the abuse the Burmese military imposed on Rohingya, they now justify the detention of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing – unbelievable," Haley wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
At a later press conference, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Washington disagreed with many of the comments Suu Kyi made and added that the journalists should be released immediately.
"This ruling questions the freedom of the press in Burma (Myanmar)," she said.
"The fact that these journalists were condemned despite the police's testimony that they were charged with courting these journalists, in our view, raises serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary and the fair jurisdiction that they should have in this country" Nauert said.
"We urge the Government of Burma to take immediate action to correct this wrong."
Suu Kyi left her comments in response to a question from a moderator of the forum who asked if she felt comfortable that the reporters were imprisoned.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted on September 3 in a groundbreaking case of abuse of office that raises questions about Myanmar's progress toward democracy.
The two reporters who found themselves not guilty investigated the murder of 10 villagers of the Muslim Rohingya minority by the Burmese security forces at the time of their arrest. The military later admitted the killings and said it was punishing several soldiers.
The United Nations, human rights and press freedom and various governments criticized the convictions. US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have demanded their release.
The United States was a strong supporter of Suu Kyi when, in the 1980s, she appeared as a pro-democracy icon who had to endure years of house arrest defending military rule and winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Western criticism has been due to Suu Kyi's failure to speak out against the Rohingya's military treatment and its attitude to the treatment of journalists.
In Hanoi, Suu Kyi asked if people know the details of the case against the reporters.
"I wonder if so many people actually read the summary of the verdict, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, but with an official secret law," she said.
"If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the verdict and to point out why the verdict was wrong."
The spokesman for the Burmese government, Zaw Htay, was not immediately available to comment on Suu Kyi's remarks. He said last week that the court was independent and had followed the orderly process.
Reuters said in response to Suu Kyi's comments in a statement, "We continue to believe that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have not violated Myanmar's spy law and have never been active in violating their country."
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified during eight months of the hearing that two police officers they had not met before handed them papers in a newspaper during a meeting in a restaurant in Yangon on December 12.
Almost immediately, they said, they were bundled into a car by civil servants.
On February 1, a cross-examination police group said that information in the documents had already been published in newspapers.
In April, a prosecution witness testified that a senior official had ordered his subordinates to put secret documents on Wa Lone to "capture" the reporter.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia, said Suu Kyi was wrong when she spoke about the verdict.
"It does not understand that a genuine rule of law means respect for evidence presented to the courts, actions based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and the independence of the judiciary."
The convictions came under mounting pressure on Myanmar for a security crime caused by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State, Myanmar, in August 2017.
Earlier Thursday, Suu Kyi said her government could have handled the situation in the Rakhine state in retrospect.
"There are, of course, ways in which we might think in retrospect that the situation could have been better treated," she said. "But we believe that, in the interests of long-term stability and security, we must do justice to all sides, we can not vote and choose who should be protected by the rule of law."
More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, according to US authorities. Myanmar has rejected allegations of atrocities committed by refugees, stating that it has carried out a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against militants.
U.N. investigators said last month that Myanmar's military carried out mass killings and mass rape of Rohingya with "genocidal intent", and that the commander-in-chief and five generals should be prosecuted under international law.
Haley said last month that the results of a forthcoming US State Department inquiry into the crisis were "in line" with those of the U.N. report.
But Washington, which is competing with its strategic rival China for influence in Myanmar, has so far saved the top generals in Myanmar from sanctions.
Reports by James Pearson, Mai Nguyen, Khanh Vu in Hanoi, Simon Lewis in Yangon, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, and David Brunnstrom and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Letter from A. Ananthalakshmi and John Geddie; Arrangement by Robert Birsel and Alistair Bell