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Myanmar frees 59 more political prisoners

Amnesty amid Rohingya criticism and lifting of EU sanctions

 Myanmar frees 59 more political prisoners
Yangon's Insein Prison is believed to still hold dozens of political detainees (AFP photo)
Daniel Wynn and John Zaw, Yangon and Mandalay

April 24, 2013

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Myanmar released about 59 political prisoners on Tuesday, according to rights groups, a day after the EU removed sanctions to reward the reformist government, despite fresh claims of grave human rights abuses against minority Muslims.

State television announced that President Thein Sein had signed off on the release of 93 prisoners in total, without stating how many of those were behind bars for political reasons.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of AAPP, the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said that 40 of those released were associated with Shan rebel groups with a further 19 people believed to have been behind bars for activities opposing the former military government.

The total number of political detainees released is thought to be higher than this number, however, when regime-linked detainees are included.

Groups like AAPP and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy generally do not include political detainees of regime-linked groups such as the former Military Intelligence, many of whose members were purged and detained at the end of 2004 and have since been freed.

“At least 200 political prisoners remain in jails and we will call on the government to release all unconditionally,” said Bo Kyi.

“Political prisoners are treated like hostages,” he added.

The timing of the latest amnesty appears to be significant. During military rule, the junta was accused of freeing prisoners at times designed to generate maximum impact on a critical international community, particularly the US and the European Union.

On Monday, the EU removed all sanctions against Myanmar except trade in arms. But on the same day Myanmar was widely criticized over a report by Human Rights Watch accusing the authorities of complicity in ethnic cleansing against the minority Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state.

The findings of a government-backed commission into last year’s deadly riots in the area were expected to be published on Tuesday but have been delayed without explanation.

 Ye Htet, imprisoned since 2001 over links to the ethnic rebel group the Karen National Union, said his release on Tuesday seemed like a political gesture by the government.

“I am glad that I am released,” he said, “but this feels like a give-and-take action made after sanctions were ended.”

Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government has released hundreds of political prisoners since parliament was opened just over two years ago.

Under the previous military regime the government denied the existence of political prisoners. However, in February, the reformist administration set up a 16-member committee to review political prisoner cases.

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