Exclusive: Myanmar soldiers jailed for Rohingya killings freed after less than a year

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YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar has granted early release to seven soldiers jailed for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys during a 2017 military crackdown in the western state of Rakhine, two prison officials, two former fellow inmates and one of the soldiers told Reuters.

Troops from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, a mobile force known for its brutal counter-insurgency campaigns, worked with members of a paramilitary police force and Buddhist vigilantes to drive out the entire Muslim population of Inn Din, burning and looting Rohingya homes and property, according to Buddhist and Muslim villagers and members of the security forces.

(Read more about the 33rd Light Infantry Division here: here)

On Sept. 1, 2017, soldiers and some villagers detained a group of 10 Rohingya. The military said the men were “terrorists”; their family members said they were farmers, high school students and an Islamic teacher.

The next morning, witnesses said, Buddhist villagers hacked some of the Rohingya men with swords. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops and buried in a shallow grave.

The two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, discovered the grave and obtained pictures of the 10 men before and after they were killed. The journalists were arrested in December 2017 while investigating the killings and later sentenced to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act.

Defence lawyers argued their arrest and prosecution were aimed at blocking their reporting, and one police officer testified that a senior police official had ordered that the reporters be set up and arrested.

In April 2018, after launching an investigation into the killings, the military announced that four officers and three soldiers of other ranks had been dismissed from the military and sentenced to 10 years with hard labour for “contributing and participating in murder”. Neither their names nor details of their roles in the killing were disclosed.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the convictions, telling reporters at the time the sentencing was Myanmar’s “first step on the road of taking responsibility”.

Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not pick up a call seeking comment on the release of the seven soldiers.

‘YEAR THAT CHANGED MY LIFE’

Two men who recently spent time in Sittwe Prison told Reuters the seven soldiers were well-known among prisoners there.

“We were in the same building but different cells,” said one of the men, Aung Than Wai, a political activist from Sittwe, who spent nearly six months in prison under a privacy law after he criticised a state official and posted an image of the official online.

Aung Than Wai, who was released from Sittwe in December, said he wanted to speak publicly about the soldiers’ early release because an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villager also jailed over the Inn Din killings was still in prison. The villager, school teacher Tun Aye, is serving a five-year sentence for murder at Buthidaung Prison in northern Rakhine, said his lawyer, Khin Win.

The convicted soldiers in Sittwe were given beer and cigarettes even though such indulgences were off-limits to other prisoners, Aung Than Wai said.

The soldiers were also visited by army officials, said the second man who was in the prison at the time and asked not to be named. In November, the seven men were taken away in a military vehicle, he said.

The same month, Zin Paing Soe, one of the convicted soldiers, set up a new Facebook account, noting in his biography that he attended the military’s elite Defence Services Academy.

In one of the account’s first public posts, he said he was looking forward to the end of a year spent mostly in prison.

“When will these unfortunate things end for me?” the post reads. “The year that totally changed my life: Fuck 2018.”

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