Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A court in central Myanmar has sentenced five people - four journalists of the Unity Journal, plus the weekly's owner - to ten years of hard labour for compromising national security after they published articles about an alleged chemical weapons plant built thanks to Chinese assistance.
The ruling has incensed human rights activists and the international community, and represents a step backward for the country's political reform process, which began in 2011 when the quasi-civilian administration of President Thein Sein came to power.
The trial began in March and ended yesterday with a number of convictions. The lawyers of the five accused did not hide their surprise at the harshness of the verdict and announce their intention to appeal.
A ruling by the District Court in Pakkoku, Magway Division, was at the centre of the dispute. The journalists were found guilty of leaking state secrets. For Robert Sann Aung, one of the members of the defence team, the sentence was disproportionate. "I expected they'd be punished for trespassing and serve three months," he said.
The journalists had looked at a chemical plant near Pakkoku, which was built in cooperation with Chinese specialists, in order to manufacture weapons.
In an article published last January, the journalists said that the military had seized more than 1,200 hectares of land to build the chemical weapons factory in accordance with plans laid out by former dictator General Than Shwe.
Myanmar authorities strongly denied that the plant made weapons. Myanmar is signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production of such weapons, but has not yet ratified it.
The Myanmar government is under partial civilian control after decades of military dictatorship, but the military still holds sway. In March, it adopted its first press law, providing for freedom of the press after nearly 50 years of tough censorship and restrictions imposed by the military.
Nevertheless, in its Annual Survey, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranked Myanmar 145th out of 180 countries in the world in terms of press freedom.
Speaking about recent sectarian violence in Mandalay, President Thein Sein himself defined Myanmar's press as "one of the freest" on the Asian continent, but warned that the recent press freedom "granted" to TV and newspapers would be curbed if the country's stability were threatened.