Yangon: Two Reuters journalists, who were imprisoned for their reporting of a massacre carried out by Myanmar's military forces against the Rohingya Muslim minority, were pardoned and freed from prison on Tuesday after spending over 500 days behind bars.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December 2017 and were found guilty in September 2018 of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act over their reporting of the massacre in the village of Inn Dinn in Rakhine state. They were sentenced to seven years in prison.
Their case was widely seen as a test of press freedom in Myanmar and the country's de facto leader Aung San Su Kyi was criticised for defending the jailing of both the men.
Locked up in Yangon's Insein jail since 2017, the journalists, who received this year's Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, were freed in the morning as part of an amnesty of 6,520 prisoners by Myanmar President Win Myint.
As he left the prison, Wa Lone thanked supporters for calling for his and his colleague's release, the BBC reported.
"Inside in the prison and also around the world people were wishing to release us, so I'd like to say thank you very much," he said, adding he was "really happy -- excited -- to see my family and colleagues. And I can't wait to go to my newsroom".
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had an emotional reunion with their wives and children hours after being released. Wa Lone's first child, Thet Htar Angel, was born while he was behind bars so this was the first time he was able to embrace his daughter as a free man, the Guardian reported.
Kyaw Soe Oo was seen holding his daughter, three-year-old Moe Thin Wai Zan.
"During the trial she would steal brief embraces with her father outside the courtroom before he was bundled back to jail... Now the three of us can hug each other and we are so happy for that," his wife Chit Su Win told the daily.
Reuters' Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said the reporters had become "symbols" of press freedom. "We are enormously pleased Myanmar has released our courageous reporters," he said in a statement.
Amal Clooney, who joined the legal team working on their case a year ago, paid tribute to the "incredible determination" of Reuters "in their pursuit of justice for their brave reporters".
UK's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he had personally raised the case with Suu Kyi in September. "I am extremely grateful she has listened to me and many others... In a world where media freedom is under attack this is a rare glimmer of hope," tweeted Hunt.
Human Rights Watch's Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson said: "We congratulate Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on walking free from unjust imprisonment and applaud they have now been reunited with their families."
The UN in Myanmar called the move "a step towards improving the freedom of the press and a sign of government's commitment to Myanmar's transition to democracy".
In January, the High Court in Yangon threw out Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's appeals, and on April 23, the country's Supreme Court rejected their last attempt to get their convictions overturned.
After that final defeat, the journalists' lawyer said they had to hope for a presidential pardon, which they finally received this week after years of international pressure.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, their lawyers, and the news agency have maintained that the pair never committed any crime.