Myanmar frees 14,600, but few political prisoners

AP News
Posted: May 17, 2011 7:55 AM
Myanmar frees 14,600, but few political prisoners

Myanmar is releasing more than 14,600 prisoners under a clemency program that includes just a few political prisoners, one of them a hip-hop singer.

Prison Department Director General Zaw Win said most of the convicts, including 2,166 women, would be freed Tuesday from jails around the country.

Myanmar has been under the sway of the army since 1962, and critics say its recent transition to a civilian government is a charade that perpetuates military rule. Authorities have long clamped down on dissent, and the U.N. and human rights groups estimate there are more than 2,000 political detainees countrywide.

The limited nature of the program _ which commutes death sentences to life imprisonment and cuts one year from other convicts' prison terms _ has drawn criticism from many who had expected more generous terms, similar to broader amnesties that have been announced in the past.

New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the clemency "a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners."

The U.S. State Department and Amnesty International both called for the immediate release of all political prisoners, as they have before.

The National League for Democracy _ the country's de facto opposition party _ said at least 22 political prisoners, mostly members of the group, were among those freed. Zeyar Thaw, a singer with the band Acid who was accused of belonging to an underground opposition group, was one of those let free.

The Myanmar government generally grants amnesties to mark important national days. The last in 2009 freed 7,114 prisoners. Most recipients are petty criminals, but previous mass releases have usually included a handful of political detainees.

An amnesty had been expected when the country held its first elections in 20 years in November.

Most of the country's political prisoners, both from the pro-democracy movement and from out-of-favor factions in the government, are serving long sentences that will keep them locked up regardless of the clemency.

Zaw Win repeated the government's position that the country has no political detainees. But he said "some prisoners who are charged under emergency laws and for links with illegal organizations will be among those freed." Emergency laws are broadly defined security statutes usually used to prosecute political activists, who are often accused of links to banned political groups.

Those freed Tuesday included Naw Ohn Hla, a member of a group of women who used to go to Yangon's landmark Shwedagon pagoda every Tuesday to pray for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest.

Long-term detainees who remain behind bars include prominent student activists such as Min Ko Naing who are serving 65-year prison sentences and politicians from ethnic minority parties such as Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo who have sentences of more than 80 years.

Apart from pro-democracy activists, many former intelligence officers who were on the losing side of a power struggle are serving lengthy prison sentences.

Myanmar has more than 60,000 prisoners in 42 prisons and 109 labor camps.