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Reuters Journalists Free After Over 500 Days in Prison

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  • Two Reuters journalists who had been imprisoned in Myanmar were released on Tuesday after being detained for more than 500 days.
  • Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December of 2017 for allegedly possessing state secrets, though many believe their arrest was a set-up and that the two were targeted for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
  • The journalists were originally sentenced to seven years in prison but were pardoned by President Win Myint along with 6,520 other prisoners.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo Freed

The two Reuters journalists, who many believe were arrested in Myanmar for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis, were released from prison Tuesday after being detained for over 500 days.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of a pardon of 6,520 prisoners by President Win Myint, effectively commuting what had originally been a seven-year sentence. The two journalists were seen smiling and waving in videos and photos of them walking out of the gates of the prison before they were mobbed by journalists and photographers.

“Around the world, people wishing to release us, so I would like to say thank you very much,” Lone told reporters following his release. “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”

The two were then taken to see their families where they were both reunited with their wives and daughters. Lone, whose daughter was born while he was in prison, was able to hold his baby for the first time as a free man. Soe Oo was also reunited with his three-year-old daughter, who has been separated from her father for much of her life.

Background

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for allegedly possessing secret documents.

Their arrest is widely believed to have been a set-up. Many argue that the journalists were actually being targeted for their reporting on crimes against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

For the last few years, the Rohingya have been forced to flee persecution from state security forces in what has amounted to a huge refugee crisis. Many experts have labeled the persecution of Rohingya as a genocide or ethnic cleansing, but military and civilian officials have denied this.

The police asked to meet with Lone and Soe Oo, who agreed. During their meeting, the police and handed the journalists rolled up documents as they were leaving. The officers then promptly arrested the two men for having those same documents.

Police officials and the Burmese government have maintained that they were not arrested because of their coverage of the crisis, but the conditions of their arrest and sentencing have been questionable at best.

Then in September 2018, Lone and Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison. Much like the conditions of their arrest, the testimonies against them were questionable. One police officer admitting burning his notes, and another witness read parts of testimony off notes on his hand.

The journalists’ imprisonment immediately sparked international outrage, with many world leaders arguing that the government was censoring them for their reporting. Lone and Soe Oo appealed the case to a regional high court, but lost the appeal in January.

They then appealed to the Myanmar Supreme Court, which denied their appeal on April 22. After the Supreme Court decision, it seemed like all hope was lost, until their release was reported Tuesday, in a move that surprised the international community.

International Response

Numerous leaders all around the world have celebrated the journalists’ newfound freedom, expressing hope that their release represents a trend in more democratic press practices in Myanmar.

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Soe Oo,” Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters said in a statement. “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”

Vice President Mike Pence commended their release in a tweet, writing, “Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also praised the move, saying “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right & must be defended everywhere in the world.”

“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” said Amal Clooney, who was part of the journalists’ legal team said. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”

The move was also applauded by human rights organizations and leaders, but many also expressed concern for the future.

“Today marks an important victory for press freedom in Myanmar.” Nicholas Bequelin Amnesty International’s East and Southeast Asia Director wrote in a statement.

“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” Bequelin added.

“Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”

What Next?

Bequelin’s statement, which was also echoed by Amal Clooney, hits on an important note. This case has been widely covered in international media for nearly a year and a half, and now it seems to have a happy ending no one expected.

While that is certainly true for Lone and Soe Oo, their release also begs the question: does this show a new commitment to press freedom in Myanmar?

Following their sentencing, many looked to Myanmar’s new civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to fight for democracy in Myanmar. The international community hoped that Suu Kyi, whose role is comparable to that of a prime minister, would help usher in a new transition to more democratic practices following a long history of military rule.

Suu Kyi’s government was largely expected to end the imprisonment of government critics, pardon political prisoners, and continue to work towards free media. Instead, her government has cracked down on free expression and continued to use outdated laws to imprison people like Lone and Soe Oo.

In fact, Amnesty International has reported that in recent weeks they have “recorded a surge in politically motivated arrests – most for criticism of the military.”

Suu Kyi has also come under a lot of fire for her handling of the Reuters journalists. While she had the power to pardon them, she defended the court’s decision.

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Suu Kyi said following the sentencing. “The court has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act”

Meanwhile, the violent persecution of the Rohingya continues with no accountability from the military or Suu Kyi, who until the last few years has largely been considered a beacon of the fight for human rights and democracy globally.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (CNN)

International

India’s High Court Rules Groping Child Through Clothing Is Not Sexual Assault

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  • An Indian appeals court judge drew widespread outrage last week after ruling that groping a child over their clothes does not constitute sexual assault since there is no “skin-on-skin” contact.
  • Activists and rights lawyers pointed out that nowhere in the 2012 Protection of Children From Sexual Offenses Act does it state that skin-on-skin contact is required for a sexual assault charge.
  • Since a High Court made the decision, many are concerned that it makes the “skin-on-skin” requirement a precedent that other Indian courts need to heavily consider when ruling on cases.
  • Supreme Court lawyers and the National Commission for Women are now petitioning the Supreme Court to review and reject the decision.

Judge Rules Sexual Assault Needs Skin-on-Skin Contact

In an extremely controversial decision last week, Bombay High Court judge Pushpa Ganediwala ruled that groping a child over their clothes does not constitute sexual assault

The case started in 2016 when a 39-year-old man groped a 12-year-old girl’s chest and attempted to forcibly remove her underwear. He was found guilty of sexual assault by a lower court and sentenced to three years in prison. He later appealed the decision where it ended up in Judge Ganediwala’s appeals court.

Judge Ganediwala came to her decision by writing that the incident didn’t feature any “skin-on-skin” contact, meaning it failed to achieve the statutory requirements for sexual assault. While she acquitted the man of his sexual assault charge, she did find him guilty of molestation and sentenced him to one year in prison.

Challenging the Ruling

The ruling was met with extreme backlash by activists and rights lawyers all across India. Their largest point of contention is that nowhere in the 2012 Protection of Children From Sexual Offenses Act does it state that skin-on-skin contact is required. Beyond obvious and overt sexual acts, only intending to commit an act is enough to meet the statute.

Adding to their concerns is the prominence of the court. The High Court is about the equivalent of a U.S. District Appeals Court, meaning that it has the power to set a precedent. Like in the U.S., precedence plays an important factor in deciding cases and can often act as a way to clarify laws. Judge Ganediwala’s decision effectively makes the “skin-on-skin” metric the rule when deciding future sexual assault cases.

That requirement may be relatively short-lived. Lawyers from India’s Supreme Court Bar, as well as officials and lawyers from the National Commission for Women, are petitioning the Supreme Court to review and reject the decision. It’s unclear what exactly will happen at this time, but for many, the decision touches on a large issue in India: sex crimes.

The country has long struggled with sexual assaults against women and minors, with many thinking the laws and punishments are too lax against perpetrators.

The issue is so prevalent that in 2018, official figures showed that the rape of a woman was reported every 16 minutes.

See what others are saying: (Times of India) (CNN) (CBS NEWS)

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Wealthy Canadian Couple Posed as Motel Workers To Jump Vaccine Queue

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  • Rodney Baker, the CEO of a Canadian casino company, resigned this week after he and his wife were caught traveling to a remote area in Yukon that is home to many indigenous people to jump the coronavirus vaccine queue.
  • The two allegedly posed as motel workers and were given the first dose of the vaccine but raised suspicions when they asked to be taken straight to the airport immediately afterward. 
  • Both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declarations, adding up to $1,150 each.
  • The White River First Nation is calling for stiffer penalties, saying the small fine would be meaningless to the wealthy duo. For reference, the former CEO was paid a salary of more than $10.6 million in 2019.  

Couple Dupes Local Healthcare Workers

Like many other countries, officials in Canada have been working hard to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations. In the Yukon territory specifically, health workers have been giving priority to remote communities with elderly and high-risk populations, as well as limited access to healthcare.

One of those areas is Beaver Creek, which is home to many members of the White River First Nation. However, Beaver Creek is now making headlines after two wealthy Vancouver residents traveled there to jump ahead in the vaccine queue.

The two culprits were identified as 55-year-old Rodney Baker, president and CEO of Great Canadian Gaming Corp, and his wife, 32-year-old actress Ekaterina Baker.

They reportedly flew from Vancouver to Whitehouse, then chartered a private plane to the remote community. Afterward, they went to a mobile clinic where they were able to receive the Moderna vaccine after saying they were new hires at a nearby motel.

Their presence raised suspicions given how small the population is in Beaver Creek, but the two raised even more eyebrows when they asked to be taken straight to the airport after receiving their doses.

Workers from the vaccination clinic checked with the motel and alerted law enforcement when they learned that the Bakers had lied about working there.

The couple was stopped just as they were preparing to fly back to their luxury condo in downtown Vancouver. According to CBC, both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declaration, adding up to $1,150 each.

Indigenous Community Responds

“We are deeply concerned by the actions of individuals who put our Elders and vulnerable people at risk to jump the line for selfish purposes,” the White River First Nation’s Chief Angela Demit said in a Facebook statement addressing the situation.

She also told The Washington Post that she wants to see stiffer penalties for the couple because the relatively small fines would be “essentially meaningless” for such wealthy individuals. For reference, Mr. Baker’s annual compensation in 2019 was reported to be more than $10.6 million.

Janet Vander Meer, the head of the White River First Nation’s coronavirus response team, also called the incident, “another example of ongoing acts of oppression against Indigenous communities by wealthy individuals that thought they would get away with it.”

“Our oldest resident of Beaver Creek, who is 88 years old, was in the same room as this couple. My mom, who’s palliative, was in the same room as this couple,” she told Globalnews.ca. “That’s got to be jail time. I can’t see anything less. For what our community has been through the last few days. The exhaustion. It’s just mind-boggling.”

To prevent situations like this in the future, a spokesman for the Yukon government said it would implement new requirements for proving residency in the territory.

As far as the Bakers, Rodney resigned from his role at Great Canadian this week. A spokesperson for the company, which is currently the subject of a separate money-laundering probe, says it “has no tolerance for actions that run counter to the company’s objectives and values.”

See what others are saying: (CBC) (The Washington Post) (Yukon News)

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Protests Erupt Across the Netherlands Over COVID-19 Curfew

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  • For the third night in a row, Dutch police clashed with protesters and rioters in ten cities across the Netherlands.
  • The protests are a result of frustrations over the 9:00 p.m. – 4:30 a.m. curfew the country imposed to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
  • Rioters looted across major cities and even burned down a coronavirus testing site. So far, 184 people have been arrested and thousands have received fines for their participation.
  • The Prime Minister has said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go, but he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

Violence Over Coronavirus Curfew

The Netherlands faced riots and protests over coronavirus curfews and lockdown measures for the third night in a row.

The protests raged across ten cities, including major ones such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Authorities say that 184 people have been arrested so far, and thousands have received fines for their participation.

Protesters are particularly upset with an ongoing curfew in the country that puts restrictions on travel between 9:00 p.m.- 4:30 a.m.. It’s meant to slow the spread of the virus by preventing nightlife activities; however, critics have questioned just how effective those measures actually are.

Beyond the skepticism, the Netherlands is also facing a spread of misinformation about COVID-19, leading many to downplay how dangerous it is.

Last night’s protests led to violence with police, as well as a COVID-19 testing site being burnt to the ground. Wider Dutch society has been shocked by the violence since protests of this nature are relatively rare in the nation.

Mayors across the country vowed to introduce emergency measures that are intended to help deal with the protests.

Coping With the Virus

Regarding the curfew itself, the government has refused to budge on the issue. When responding to last night’s violence, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go. Still, he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

The Netherlands had managed to maintain the virus relatively successfully, six months ago, it had among the lowest new daily cases in Europe, with around 42 daily new cases in July. That all changed in September when cases began to rise dramatically, peaking of 11,499 daily new cases on Dec. 24.

Source: Google Coronavirus Statistics

Due to the imposed restrictions, cases began to fall again, although they are still far higher than they were in the summer of 2020.

See What Others Are Saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (NPR)

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