Vice President Pence joined a cacophony of voices condemning the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who were investigating violence in Myanmar.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in the mainly Buddhist country. They were arrested in December, accused of breaking a law on state secrets and sentenced on Monday to seven years in prison. They said they were framed by police officers who had insisted on meeting and then handed them documents minutes before their arrest.
Pence said Tuesday that he was "deeply troubled" by the court's decision. The journalists should be "commended — not imprisoned — for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings," he said in a tweet. "Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy." He called on the government to reverse the ruling and release the journalists immediately.
Their imprisonment is another data point for U.S. officials who view the recent transition from military rule to democracy in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, with concern.
Mark Green, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Tuesday in a written statement that "these convictions are an enormous setback for democracy and the rule of law in Burma." He urged the government to protect journalists and press freedom.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said, "The conviction of two journalists for doing their job is another terrible stain on the Burmese government." She vowed to continue calling for their immediate, unconditional release.
"The right to freedom of expression and information is a cornerstone of any democracy," a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a written statement calling the journalists' prosecution "unacceptable" and urging authorities to review the decision.
The men's wives desperately pleaded for their release following the sentencing.
Sitting at a news conference in Yangon on Tuesday, they held back tears as they spoke of their husbands, who are both fathers to young children.
"I believed that we would be able to go home together," Kyaw Soe Oo's wife, Chit Su Win, said, according to Reuters. They were "just doing their jobs as reporters."
Wa Lone's wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to their first child last month, Reuters reported. "I never thought such a harsh verdict would be handed down," she said.
A lawyer for the two men conveyed a message on behalf of one of the wives to Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader and a Nobel laureate who spent years living under house arrest.
"As mother to mother, [Chit Su Win] wants to tell Aung San Suu Kyi about her daughter," the lawyer said, according to CNN. "Her daughter is now about 3 years of age and is very affectionate to her father. Her child asked her, 'Mother, mother, why doesn't father come back to us? Doesn't he love you? Is that why he isn't coming home?' "
In June, Suu Kyi told Japanese broadcaster NHK that the men had been arrested not for investigating military atrocities against the Rohingya, but "because they broke the Official Secret Act."
"I am very sad about what she answered because she was the one whom we always admired and respected," Pan Ei Mon said, according to The Associated Press.
More than 700,000 Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar last year when security forces launched a campaign of mass killings, rape and arson. A recent U.N. report described it as genocide and said top military leaders should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The report also said that Suu Kyi did not use "her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events."
Reuters regional editor Kevin Krolicki, who worked with the journalists, told NPR that their reporting "is their contribution to democracy in Myanmar and their way of securing a better future for the next generation."
Journalists from Reuters offices around the world showed their support in photographs, holding signs that called for their colleagues' freedom.
The defense can appeal the ruling, the news service reports, and lawyers told reporters on Tuesday that they were weighing their options.