Seven Myanmar soldiers jailed for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in the western state of Rakhine in 2017 were given early release, a prison official told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday.
"The seven military men serving jail sentences are no longer in prison,” Myint Soe, director general of the Prisons Department, told RFA.
The official confirmed details in a report by Reuters news agency, which quoted two prison officials, two former fellow inmates and one of the soldiers jailed for the September 2017 killings at Inn Din village.
The soldiers were freed in November last year, the two inmates told Reuters, meaning they served less than one year of their 10-year prison terms and less jail time than two Reuters reporters who uncovered the killings.
The journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, spent more than 16 months in jail on charges of obtaining state secrets. They were released in an amnesty on May 6, shortly after winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Inn Din murders.
"We haven’t learned anything about this Inn Din case yet. We learned it only now from you,” said Brigadier General Aung Kyaw Hoe, the permanent secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry.
Col. Aung Khin Thein of the Ministry of Defense told reporters that the seven soldiers who were serving jail time could have made an appeal for their release in accordance with the legal proceedings to the commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.
Reuters quoted a man named Zin Paing Soe in a telephone interview who confirmed that he was one of the seven soldiers. He told the agency that he was free but declined to comment further. "We were told to shut up," he said.
“If it is true, it is totally unacceptable. It gives the message that military members can do whatever they want and walk away free,” said Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
“These soldiers were convicted for murders. Early release of these convicts violates the Geneva Convention agreements and international principles,” he told RFA.
“More than anything, the early release of these seven soldiers reveals Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Tatmadaw commanders don’t really consider the Rohingya to be human, and were never committed to seeing anyone held accountable for their crimes in Rakhine state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“The only reason these seven soldiers were arrested is because Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo exposed these cold-blooded murders in an investigative news story that could not be refuted,” he said in a statement.
Prominent lawyer Kyi Myint said the early release of the seven soldiers showed that “the military is off-limits from application to the rule of law and doesn't seem to concern itself with the civilian government.”
“All in all, there is no rule of law in the whole country.”
“The military has committed this kind of action all the time. This action clearly indicates the lack of rule of law in the country,” said Maung Maung Lay of the Human Rights Defenders’ Network.
“We could say the military is above the law.”
At the time of their arrest, the two Reuters reporters were working on a story about the murders of 10 Rohingya men, including two teenagers, from Inn Din village in northern Rakhine state.
The news agency later produced a gripping account of the killings by soldiers and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist neighbors. The 10 Rohingya men were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.
Following an investigation of the incident, the Myanmar military sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison.
The Inn Din killings came after militant attacks in late August 2017 were answered by an army-led campaign of terror that included indiscriminate killings, rape, torture, and arson in what Myanmar calls a counterinsurgency against Muslim terrorists. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, where most remain in squalid refugee camps.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Khin Khin Ei for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.