Myanmar's government announced Monday that it is reducing the sentences of many prisoners, but stopped short of declaring an amnesty that had been expected by many people.
State television and radio said President Thein Sein signed a clemency order to mark the country's 64th anniversary of independence on Wednesday.
They said death sentences will be commuted to life imprisonment and prisoners serving more than 30 years will have their sentences cut to 30 years. Prisoners serving 20-30 years will have their terms reduced to 20 years, while those with less than 20 years will have their sentences cut by one-fourth.
It was not immediately clear how many prisoners would be affected or whether the order would apply to all political detainees. Some former student activists serving 65-year terms were included in the clemency.
Last week, state-run media reported that the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission had appealed to Thein Sein to issue a general amnesty.
"This order cannot be called an amnesty. The limited nature ... indicates that the government has no intention to free the prisoners of conscience," activist lawyer Aung Thein told The Associated Press.
A spokesman for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said the move fell short.
"Many political prisoners will remain in detention," party spokesman Han Thar Myint said. "It is not satisfactory."
Thein Sein has pushed forward reforms since taking office last March, following decades of repression under previous military regimes. His government is still dominated by a military proxy party, but changes have been made in areas such as media, the Internet and political participation.
An amnesty in October freed 6,359 prisoners, including about 200 political prisoners, but many prominent detainees remained behind bars.
Suu Kyi said in November that there were still about 600 political prisoners, but some human rights groups put the number at about 1,500.
Most political prisoners, both from the pro-democracy movement and from out-of-favor government factions, are serving long prison terms that will keep them locked up for many more years.
The detainees include prominent former student activists Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who have been serving 65-year sentences, and ethnic Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo, who was given a 93-year term.
The release of political prisoners has been seen as a crucial step in the country's reforms, and a failure to free a substantial number is likely to be considered inadequate by the United States, the European Union and other nations.