Yangon, Jan 11 (AP/UNB) — A court in Myanmar on Friday rejected the appeal of two Reuters journalists convicted of violating the country's Official Secrets Act during their reporting on the country's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, maintaining the seven-year prison terms they were sentenced to last year.
Judge Aung Naing of the Yangon High Court said in his ruling that lawyers for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo failed to submit enough evidence to prove they were innocent. Neither man was in court for the ruling.
The conviction of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has drawn condemnation from rights groups, Western governments and global press associations and has raised questions about press freedom in Myanmar as it transitions from decades of military rule.
Although the military has kept control of several key ministries, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's rise to heading the government had raised hopes for more democratic freedoms.
"Today's ruling is yet another injustice among many inflicted upon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo," Reuters Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement Friday. "They remain behind bars for one reason: Those in power sought to silence the truth. Reporting is not a crime, and until Myanmar rights this terrible wrong, the press in Myanmar is not free, and Myanmar's commitment to rule of law and democracy remains in doubt."
The two journalists were convicted of violating the colonial era Official Secrets Act after they were found with government documents in their possession. They were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017, in the country's main city, Yangon, immediately after having a meal to which police officers had invited them.
One police officer, despite being called as a prosecution witness, testified that his superiors had ordered the men to be entrapped with documents planted on them. The officer, Capt. Moe Yan Naing was dropped from the force after his testimony and jailed for a year for breaking police regulations.
Supporters of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo contend they were framed because of official displeasure over their reporting on the brutal crackdown by security forces on minority Rohingya in Rakhine state.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a crackdown that began in August 2017. Critics have described the campaign as ethnic cleansing, or even genocide, on the part of Myanmar security forces.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had worked on one of the most detailed accounts of official abuses, an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which seven soldiers were eventually sentenced to up to 10 years in prison with hard labor.
European Union ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt, who also was at court, described the ruling as "a great disappointment and a missed opportunity to correct a wrong that has been committed against the two journalists."
"It casts serious doubts on the independence of the judiciary of Myanmar and for people's right to information and learning the truth," he said.
He called for Myanmar's president to have the journalists released immediately and unconditionally.
Kyaw Soe Oo's wife, Chit Su, said the ruling came as a surprise.
"We thought that they would be free today," she said. "We were expecting to welcome them in front of Insein Prison."
"I still believe that they will be free," she added.
Lawyers for the men had previously said that if their appeal failed, they would have to hope for a pardon or general amnesty to obtain an early release.
One of them, Than Zaw Aung, told reporters Friday there were still two or three more steps they could take in the courts, involving appeals, and they have 60 days to make a submission to the country's Supreme Court.
The reporters' work and stand for freedom of the press have earned them awards and plaudits. Most notably, they were among a group of journalists honored by Time magazine as "Person of the Year." The cover of some editions of the magazine showed their wives holding photos of the two.
Thailand, Jan 11 (AP/UNB) — Gunmen disguised as state security personnel fatally shot four paramilitary volunteers guarding a school in insurgency-wracked southern Thailand, police said.
The attackers approached the armed territorial defense volunteers at the school in Pattani province and shot them dead shortly before noon Thursday, police Lt. Col. Wicha Nupannoi said. They seized four HK33 assault rifles from their victims before fleeing, scattering nails and other material on the road to delay pursuers, he said.
Predominantly Buddhist Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have been plagued by a Muslim separatist insurgency that has claimed the lives of about 7,000 people since 2004, according to the research group Deep South Watch, which monitors the region.
On Tuesday, a bomb outside a school and a car bomb elsewhere exploded in nearby Songkhla province, wounding a 12-year-old student, a security guard for teachers and a police medic. A flurry of similar attacks took place in the last week of December. Several targeted Songkhla, which previously had been largely spared the violence.
"The insurgents consider school officials to be symbolic of the Thai Buddhist state's occupation of Malay Muslim territory," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "They have frequently targeted security personnel assigned to provide students and teachers safe passage to and from school, or protecting the school grounds."
The attacks have occurred during an effort to revitalize peace talks between the Thai government and some insurgent groups. Analysts say the most militant group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, is not taking part.
Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the BRN for Tuesday's bombings. He said the authorities would have to step up efforts to prevent the attacks.
Human Rights Watch also pinned the blame for the region's ongoing violence on the BRN.
The insurgents "attack schools and medical clinics to maim and terrify Buddhist civilians, control the Muslim population, and discredit Thai authorities," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in the statement. "Whatever the rationale, targeting civilians is morally indefensible and a war crime."
Beijing, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly told the leader of his only major ally, China, that he wants to "achieve results" on the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula during a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The comments, contained in Chinese state media reports Thursday, came a day after Kim left Beijing on his special armored train after a two-day visit to the Chinese capital.
Kim's trip to China — his fourth in the past 10 months — is believed to be an effort to coordinate with Beijing ahead of a possible second summit with Trump. It comes after U.S. and North Korean officials are thought to have met in Vietnam to discuss the site of the summit.
North Korea will "make efforts for the second summit between (North Korean) and U.S. leaders to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community," Kim was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency.
All sides should "jointly push for a comprehensive resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue" and North Korea will "continue sticking to the stance of denuclearization and resolving the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and consultation," Xinhua quoted Kim as saying.
Kim also said North Korea hopes its "legitimate concerns" will be given due respect, a reference to its desire for security guarantees and a possible peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
He also credited Chinese President Xi Jinping with helping reduce regional tensions, saying "the Korean Peninsula situation has been easing since last year, and China's important role in this process is obvious to all."
The North's Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim told Xi that the North remains unchanged in its push to seek a negotiated resolution of the nuclear standoff. It said Kim also mentioned unspecified difficulties in improving ties with the United States and moving nuclear diplomacy forward.
Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying that China supports the U.S.-North Korea summits and hopes the two sides "will meet each other halfway." KCNA said Xi accepted an invitation to visit North Korea, although details of when he might go were not given.
It wasn't clear from the reports if Kim was in back in North Korea, but his train presumably would arrive sometime Thursday.
Xi has yet to visit North Korea since taking office in 2012.
Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June for the first-ever leaders' meeting between their nations, but there has been a standoff ever since, with dueling accusations of bad faith.
Kim's Beijing visit was seen as part of an effort to win Chinese support for a reduction of U.N. sanctions imposed over his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The sanctions have severely impacted his country's already ailing economy.
While North Korea hasn't conducted any test launches or detonations in more than a year, it has displayed no real intention of abandoning the programs that are seen as guaranteeing the government's survival.
The trip also came after he expressed frustration in his annual New Year's address over the lack of progress in negotiations with Washington since the Singapore summit, saying that if things don't improve — meaning that if sanctions relief and security guarantees aren't in the offing — North Korea might have to find "a new way" forward.
While Trump says he considers Xi key to enticing Kim into taking concrete steps toward denuclearization, the president's own relationship with his Chinese counterpart has frayed over the U.S.-China trade war.
Officially, at least, China says it considers the tariff battle and North Korea's weapons programs to be entirely separate.
KCNA reported that Kim on Wednesday visited a pharmaceutical plant belonging to Beijing Tongrentang Co. Ltd., where he watched production processes.
It said he met with Xi at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday after a welcoming ceremony. Later Tuesday, Xi gave a grand banquet for Kim, his wife Ri Sol Ju and other visiting North Korean officials.
At Tuesday's daily Chinese foreign ministry briefing, spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing remains supportive of efforts to end tensions over U.S. demands for a halt to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
"We always believe that, as key parties to the Korean Peninsula issue, it's important for the two sides to maintain contact and we always support their dialogue to achieve positive outcomes," Lu said.
Tuesday was Kim's birthday but there was no word of any official celebration.
Kabul, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — Officials say a wave of Taliban attacks in western and northern Afghanistan the previous day has killed 21 members of the country's security forces.
Jamshed Shahabi, spokesman for the governor in western Badghis province, says the insurgents overran outposts there, killing six policemen.
Council member Shamsul Haq Barekzai in northern Baghlan province says seven members of the local police force were killed there, also on Wednesday.
And in northern Takhar province, council member Ruhollah Raufi says eight policemen were gunned down.
The attacks left another 23 members of the security forces wounded. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for all the attacks.
The insurgents carry out near-daily attacks on Afghan troops, inflicting heavy loses. In response, the government in Kabul no longer releases official casualty figures.
Islamabad, Jan 9 (AP/UNB) — The Afghan president's special peace envoy expressed hope Wednesday that the war that has ravaged this country for over 17 years and cost the United States about $1 trillion will end in 2019.
However, Mohammad Omer Daudzai also cautioned there won't be peace until the Taliban, who have held several rounds of talks with Washington's special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, agree to direct talks with the Afghan government.
"We are naming 2019 as a year of peace for Afghanistan," Daudzai summed up his optimism in an interview with The Associated Press
The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with Kabul despite pressure by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Pakistan, where Washington says the Taliban leadership is headquartered.
In response, Washington has suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursements to Pakistan under a Coalition Support Fund paid out by the United States to its partners in the war on terror.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of harboring militants. Pakistan denies the charge and says its influence over the Taliban is overstated.
Daudzai, who was appointed last month, made his first visit to the region to Islamabad — an indication of Pakistan's significance in finding peace.
Pakistan has "influence" over the Taliban but "forcing" them into talks is unproductive, said Daudzai, urging Islamabad instead to "encourage them to come to the negotiation table, make them realize it is to their benefit."
Daudzai said Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan's "heart and mind is in the right place. We are hopeful. We have received all the right signals."
Trump appears to have grown increasingly frustrated with the Afghan conflict — a war he promised to bring to an end during his 2016 election campaign. Last week, he criticized the U.S. military's performance in Afghanistan saying "I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn't do such a great job in Afghanistan."
Trump last week also for the first time publicly stated that the U.S. was in negotiations with the Taliban.
"We're going to do something that's right. We are talking to the Taliban. We're talking to a lot of different people," he said.
Until now, the U.S. State Department has not confirmed direct talks with the Taliban and Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, has avoided direct reference to the Taliban, saying he has had contacts with all the players in Afghanistan's protracted conflict.
The State Department late Tuesday said Khalilzad has started another tour of the region that will take him to India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is his first visit since his appointment that did not include Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office and where he has held extensive talks with the religious movement.
Khalilzad's decision to bypass Qatar could reflect his frustration with Taliban officials, following their last meeting in November in the United Arab Emirates.
Daudzai told the AP that Khalilzad had been led to believe by Saudi Arabia that the Taliban would hold direct talks with the Afghan government in the UAE. As a result, Khalilzad asked President Ashraf Ghani to send his representatives. He sent a delegation, including national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib. The subsequent refusal by the Taliban infuriated Ghani, Daudzai said.
The Taliban have stubbornly refused direct talks with Kabul, demanding the U.S first announce a schedule for the withdrawal of foreign troops, as well as prisoner releases and the removal of the Taliban leadership from the U.N. terrorist list.
Pentagon officials earlier this month said they planned to withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan by the summer. Currently, about 14,000 American soldiers are deployed there, mostly to train and advise Afghan security forces and carry out counter-terrorism operations.
Daudzai said the Afghan troops, battered by near-daily Taliban attacks, can survive a U.S. troop withdrawal but would "for some time to come need U.S. air support."
He also warned the U.S. against discussing troop withdrawal in talks with the Taliban that do not include Kabul.