May 7 (UPI) -- Two Reuters journalists whose arrests over 500 days ago sparked international condemnation of the Myanmar government were among some 6,520 inmates freed Tuesday under a presidential pardon.
Prize-winning journalists Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Seo Oo, 29, were released from Yangon's Insein Prison as part of the third and final round of presidential pardons in celebration of the Myanmar New Year, the country's Frontier reported.
"I want to thank everyone who helped us in prison and also around the world people who wishing to release us, and so I would like to say thank you for everything," Wa Lone told reporters following his release. "I am really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can't wait to go to my newsroom."
The two journalists were arrested in December 2017 and were sentenced September 2018 to seven-year sentences for breaking the Official Secrets Act for having received documents from a police officer concerning their investigation into the 2017 massacre of Rohingya villagers in the country.
Myanmar has been accused by human rights groups of committing systemic genocide against the country's minority Rohingya Muslims.
Their arrests caused human rights activists, journalists and world leaders to call on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi for their release and tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the New York Times reported.
Their release comes after the second round of presidential pardons were executed on April 26 when 6,948 political prisoners were released and the first round on April 17 when 9,551 were released.
On Tuesday, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said he was "enormously pleased" with Myanmar's decision to release his reporters.
"Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world," he said. "We welcome their return."
The United Nations in Myanmar said it "welcomes" news of their freedom and that the international organization sees the gesture as a "step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of the government's commitment to Myanmar's transition to democracy."
Human Rights Watch's Deputy Asia Director congratulated the freed journalists for being released from their "unjust imprisonment" calling them "courageous" investigative journalists, but that there was more to be done as other likes them remain behind bars.
"But the crisis is not over for literally dozens of Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges" for their reporting on government officials, he said on Twitter.