Updated: October 19, 2021 05:39 AM GMT
A man is reunited with his family members outside Insein Prison in Yangon after the military junta granted amnesty to more than 5,000 people in jails across Myanmar on Oct. 18. (Photo: AFP)
Three Kachin Baptist pastors facing a lawsuit for organizing prayers for peace were among more than 5,000 prisoners freed in Myanmar under a general amnesty granted to more than 5,000 political prisoners.
The trio from the Kachin Baptist Convention, including a 70-year-old who had health problems with high blood pressure, gained their freedom on Oct. 18.
They were among 4,320 people facing trial for their role during protests against the Feb.1 coup but received amnesty from military chief Min Aung Hlaing to mark the lightning festival along with 1,316 others convicted but released “out of respect for the humanitarian cause.”
The release of political prisoners came just three days after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) excluded the junta chief from attending its summit from Oct. 26-28. But Myanmar’s deposed leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, who are facing a raft of charges, were not among the released.
Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said the release is clearly not because the junta has had a change of heart. Indeed, the arbitrary arrest and persecution of those exercising their fundamental human rights continue.
“Sustained pressure on all three fronts — money, weapons and legitimacy — is the best way the international community can support the people of Myanmar to protect their human rights and save their country,” Andrews said in a statement.
If the junta wanted to make concessions, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and all political prisoners would be released unconditionally
The pastors from Kachin state, a predominantly Christian area in northern Myanmar, were detained on June 28 after the chairman of the Rawang Literature and Culture Committee filed a lawsuit accusing them of leading a prayer service in Naungmoon township of Putao district on March 3, media reports said.
They could face up to three years in prison under a penal code that criminalizes acts causing fear, spreading false news and agitating for criminal offenses against government employees.
The Kachin Baptist Convention plays a vital role in humanitarian responses to issues faced by internally displaced persons in Kachin and Shan states.
It is not uncommon in conflict-torn Myanmar for Christians and their organizations to be targeted. Churches are often raided and shelled, especially in Kayah, Chin and Kachin states. Priests and pastors have been arrested while many unarmed civilians, including Christians, have been killed.
In 2017, two Kachin pastors who spoke to the media about a church bombing by the military in Shan state were jailed for two years under the Unlawful Association Act.
Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which tracks the arrest and persecution of political prisoners, said the release of political prisoners was “a form of distraction for the foreign governments.”
“If the junta wanted to make concessions, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and all political prisoners would be released unconditionally and the democratically elected leaders reinstalled,” AAPP said on Oct. 18.
Nearly 1,100 people have been killed and more than 9,000 have been detained by the junta since the coup on Feb. 1, AAPP said.
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