Two Reuters journalists jailed for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar walked out of prison today and in to the arms of their loved ones, freed in a presidential amnesty after a vigorous global campaign for their release.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were mobbed by media as they stepped out of Yangon's notorious Insein prison after spending more than 16 months in detention.
Their December 2017 arrests made them an international cause celebre.
Wa Lone, 33, thanked people from "around the world" for advocating for their release and vowed he would return to work.
"I can’t wait to go to my newsroom," he said. "I am a journalist and I am going to continue."
Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said: "We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters".
"Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return."
The two men waved and smiled broadly as they walked out of the jail.
The pair were convicted on charges of violating the official secrets act and sentenced to seven years each.
- 'We are very happy' -
While inside, the duo missed numerous family milestones, including the birth of Wa Lone's daughter.
Families were overjoyed with the news.
"We are very happy," Chit Su Win, who is married to Kyaw Soe Oo, told AFP. A reunion photo of both couples celebrating, smiling and holding each of their daughters was widely shared on Twitter.
During their imprisonment the journalists were showered with numerous awards and honours in response to their work.
Last month, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo won the prestigious Pulitzer prize.
They were also featured earlier on the cover of TIME magazine as part of its person of the year coverage featuring journalists targeted for their reporting.
The case against them became a byword for the war against press freedom and prompted an international campaign.
Rights groups and legal experts say the prosecution's case was riddled with irregularities.
A whistleblowing police officer testified during their trial that his superior had ordered his team to trap the reporters in a sting -- testimony the judge chose to ignore.
The now-former officer Moe Yan Naing told AFP he was "delighted" the families were back together, and expressed interest in meeting the journalists if they wanted to.
British Ambassador to Myanmar, Dan Chugg, said, "I am delighted to hear that the Myanmar Government has pardoned the journalists.
"These journalists were convicted in a case which did not follow due process and ignored the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' / In taking the decision to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo just a few days after the Supreme Court's final decision, Myanmar's Government has recognised the shortcomings of the earlier judicial procedures and demonstrated its commitment to upholding the rule of law.
"This is also good news for freedom of the media. A free and vibrant media is a necessary part of any democracy. The UK will continue to work hard to support media freedom in the UK, in Myanmar and across the world. "
The UN issued a stamen saying, ‘[the release is] a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of Government’s commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.’
Although Media advocates and rights organisations praised the release, they slammed the original arrest and conviction.
"We congratulate Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on walking free from unjust imprisonment and applaud they have now been reunited with their families," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, but adding they should have "never been arrested" in the first place.
Additional reporting AFP