LONDON -- Two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar for more than a year were freed Tuesday.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were convicted last year of breaking Myanmar's Official Secrets Act while reporting on security forces' abuses of Rohingya Muslims. They were sentenced to seven years behind bars.
Myanmar President Win Myint pardoned and released the pair on Tuesday, alongside thousands of other prisoners.
"We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo," Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said in a statement. "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 journalists were seen for the first time walking free outside of Insein Prison in the country's largest city, Yangon.
"I want to thank our friends and families who were trying for our freedom and also to those from all over the world who sympathized with us," Wa Lone told reporters. "I am really excited to see my family and colleagues. I can't wait to go to my newsroom."
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who was part of their legal team, said in a statement it was "an honor" to represent them and Reuters, adding that she saw "incredible determination" by the organization, its editor-in-chief Steve Adler and chief counsel Gail Gove.
"It is inspiring to see a news organization so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism," Clooney said. "I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar."
According to Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 while working on a story investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers by security forces and Buddhist civilians in Rakhine state on Myanmar's west coast.
The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group living in Rakhine state who have faced oppression and violence in the predominately Buddhist country for decades. There is some dispute about their origin, but the majority are descendants of Bengali Muslims who traveled before colonial borders from present-day Bangladesh and India to present-day Myanmar.
Because of that ethnic identity, Myanmar's government -- run by an oppressive military junta until eight years ago -- has denied the Rohingya citizenship since 1982, deeming them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and restricting their ability to travel or work as well as access to basic health care.
The situation deteriorated in August 2017 when Myanmar's military launched a brutal and violent crackdown in Rakhine state following attacks by Rohingya insurgents, forcing more than half a million Rohingya to flee for Bangladesh.
Security forces have been accused of committing mass atrocities during the large-scale campaign, including murder, rape, torture, enslavement and arson -- allegations Myanmar's government has repeatedly denied.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2017 described the situation as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." Last August, U.N.-appointed investigators said Myanmar's top military commanders should be investigated and prosecuted for the "gravest" crimes against civilians under international law, including genocide.