YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar pardoned and began freeing 3,073 prisoners Tuesday in an amnesty that virtually excluded political prisoners despite a presidential pledge to free all such detainees by year's end.
Most of those released had committed minor crimes, but at least eight were former intelligence officers jailed a decade ago as part of a political purge. The release came a month ahead of a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders to be held in Myanmar.
The Ministry of Information announced the amnesty on its website, saying the prisoners were being freed "on humanitarian grounds." It did not mention political prisoners.
Counting the number of political prisoners held and released is difficult because of disagreement on how to define them.
Publicly, Myanmar's government used to routinely deny holding any political prisoners, instead characterizing them as common law-breakers. But it grudgingly conceded the point in 2013, when it formed the Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee comprising former prisoners, politicians and some government officials to review the cases of claimed political detainees.
Ye Aung, a former political detainee and a member of the official committee, initially said 13 political prisoners would be freed, but later said none were freed, before again reviewing the list of those released, and saying said one had been amnestied.
Bo Kyi of the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners initially said he had not heard of any political prisoners being released, but later also said one had been freed. He identified the released prisoner as Mar La, a member of the Kachin minority, which has been battling the central government for autonomy.
"The majority are criminals. We told the government earlier that releasing criminals increases crime and measures should be taken to prevent it," he said.
In Washington, the State Department Jen Psaki said the U.S. welcomed reports of the amnesty, although it didn't have all the details on those released. She said an estimated 30 to 40 political prisoners remain incarcerated and the U.S. was urging the government to release them unconditionally and remove conditions placed on those already released.
Ye Aung said those released under the new amnesty included 58 foreigners, but provided no details about them.
According to Bo Kyi's association, there were 80 political activists incarcerated in Myanmar at the end of September, and 130 others were awaiting trial for political actions.
President Thein Sein, a former general who was elected in 2011 after five decades of military rule, has pledged to free all political offenders by the end of the year. He has released more than 1,000 political prisoners since taking office, but critics say people continue to be locked up for political offenses under his military-backed government.
Those freed Monday included at least eight former senior military intelligence officers detained after the 2004 ouster of former intelligence chief and Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.
Khin Nyunt was removed from office after fellow junta leaders accused him of insubordination and being responsible for a major corruption scandal involving his subordinates. He was given a 44-year sentence to be served under house arrest, and was freed in a 2012 amnesty.
More than three dozen senior intelligence officers linked to him, some ranking as high as brigadier general, received sentences ranging from 20 years to more than 100 years on multiple charges including bribery and corruption, in what was widely regarded as a power struggle within the country's then-ruling military.