Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined human rights groups and multiple governments Wednesday in calling for the release of two detained Reuters journalists in Myanmar.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been detained since Dec. 12 for allegedly violating a 1923 law called the Official Secrets Act and could face up to 14 years in prison.
"The arrest and continued detention of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are an attack on press freedom and democracy in Burma," Cardin said, using another name for Myanmar. "The decision by Burmese authorities to abuse a colonial-era law to arrest these reporters harkens back to the dark days of repressive military rule and further underscores the need for serious legal reform in the country."
The two had been reporting on the brutal military campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar which has driven at least 630,000 Rohingya to flee the country since August. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called the military crackdown "ethnic cleansing" and aid group Doctors Without Borders estimated that 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of the operation. Survivors have spoken of a "systematic campaign of rape in addition to murder."
Reuters says the government has held its reporters "incommunicado since their arrest, with no access to a lawyer, colleagues and family members."
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told the news organization Wednesday that a court case against the journalists would soon proceed, as police were close to finishing their investigation.
Both journalists were reported "in good condition" in Yangon and did not undergo "illegal questioning," according to government officials and police who told the spokesman, says Reuters.
The journalists had been reporting on Rakhine state, where the Rohingya population is concentrated.
They were arrested after being invited to meet with police outside Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
According to The New York Times, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had obtained photographs from residents of a village where the military says a mass grave was found. Authorities found 10 bodies in the village of Inn Din, according to the military-run newspaper Myawady, Reuters says.
There is no confirmation that possession of the photos was the reason the journalists were arrested, reporter Michael Sullivan tells NPR's Morning Edition. He says they had been reporting on the situation for some time already. But village residents were also arrested and one of those people admitted to providing photographs and documents to the Reuters reporters, Sullivan says.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the reporters' release last week. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert reiterated that Tuesday, saying the agency was "deeply concerned about their detention" and was calling for their release. Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Thom Tillis of North Carolina said they were "gravely concerned" and called for the government to "explain the arrests and allow access to the journalists."
United Nations and European Union officials and governments in Germany, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have called for their release, Reuters reports.
Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams demanded the reporters' release on Wednesday and said their "detentions appear aimed at stopping independent reporting of the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya."
The Committee to Protect Journalists called for "the reporters' immediate and unconditional release," in a statement last week. "These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance," the group's Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said.
On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights investigator Yanghee Lee said she was being banned from entering Myanmar to evaluate human rights in Rakhine state. She said it was "a strong indication that there must be something terribly awful happening in Rakhine, as well as in the rest of the country."
Myanmar has spurned criticism of the military campaign from foreign governments and groups. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and former democracy activist, has remained mostly silent on the issue. "[I]n recent months as word of the brutalities against the Rohingya came to light, international opinion has swung dramatically against Suu Kyi. Some have even called for her Nobel to be revoked," NPR's Scott Neuman reported.
"Myanmar's refusal to cooperate with the U.N. comes as the country set up a joint working committee for the return of Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh — where hundreds of thousands are housed in squalid border camps.
"Under an agreement signed last month in Dhaka, a 30-member working group is expected to be set up for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya."