Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Myanmar frees prisoners in amnesty, dissidents included
By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar pardoned more than 500 prisoners on Monday in an amnesty that included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists, a step that could strengthen the former military state's growing bonds with Washington.
An announcement on state television did not make clear if any of the 514 affected were political detainees, but two activists groups who monitor dissidents jailed in Myanmar said more than 80 were given presidential pardons.
Bo Kyi, secretary-general of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thai-based group that tracks detainees in Myanmar, said on Tuesday his group had so far found 88 political prisoners were freed, possibly more.
Ba Myo Thein from the Group for Freedom of Political Prisoners said on Tuesday 84 dissidents, including 24 Buddhist monks, were released in the amnesty.
The timing of the amnesty is significant coming ahead of a U.S. visit by Thein Sein, Myanmar's reformist president. The State Department said U.S. officials will meet the former junta general on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week.
It also coincides with a separate U.S. trip that began on Monday by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Suu Kyi's election to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July.
The United States has repeatedly called for all remaining dissidents to be freed as a pre-condition for further economic rewards, including a relaxation of a ban on imports of Myanmar-made products imposed years ago in response to human rights abuses under military regimes, which ruled from 1962-2011.
CAUTIOUS U.S. RESPONSE
In Washington, the U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to news of the amnesty and said it would monitor events to see whether any political prisoners were in fact released.
"We have seen reports that the government of Burma's Information Ministry has announced that 514 prisoners will be granted presidential amnesty on humanitarian grounds," said a State Department spokeswoman on condition of anonymity.
"We are watching developments of the prisoner release closely and will work carefully to verify if any political prisoners are released," she added. "The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."
Among those freed was Shwe Htoo, 68, a retired school teacher who was jailed for 42 years for attempting to mobilise protesters in 1998.
Until last year, Myanmar always denied holding political prisoners, or "prisoners of conscience", as they are often known, insisting all those serving jail time were common criminals.
Recent amnesties have included a mix of dissidents and criminal convicts and the government seldom refers to them as political prisoners.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generations Group of activists, most of whom were incarcerated under the military said: "We welcome the release ... but there are still many prominent prisoners of conscience."
Suu Kyi, Myanmar's most prominent former political prisoner who was held for a total of 15 years because of her struggle against dictatorship, left on Sunday for the United States, where she will receive a congressional medal.
Thein Sein was due to head to the United States on September 24, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly for the first time as president.
A prison department official in Myanmar, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said 399 of the 514 included in the amnesty were foreigners, including 84 from Thailand and 18 from China, mostly jailed for immigration offences.
He was unable to clarify whether any of those freed were political prisoners. "We don't have a category for 'prisoners of conscience' in our country," he said.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Jason Szep and Martin Petty; Editing by Michael Perry)
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