People gather outside Insein Prison in Yangon on April 17 after the president's office announced that more than a quarter of Myanmar's prisoners would be released under a Burmese New Year amnesty. (Photo: YouTube)
Myanmar has begun releasing thousands of prisoners including political prisoners across the country in an amnesty to mark the traditional Burmese New Year.
The president’s office said in a statement on April 17 that President Win Myint had pardoned 24,896 prisoners “by respecting humanitarian grounds and peace of mind of the people.”
It said some 87 foreigners included in the pardon would be deported.
The Southeast Asian nation grants an annual amnesty to mark New Year but the latest one comes amid mounting pressure to release inmates from crowded jails as coronavirus fears grip the country.
Myanmar has reported 107 Covid-19 cases including five deaths, according to the latest data.
Human Rights Watch had called on Myanmar’s government to stem the spread of Covid-19 by reducing the population of the country’s “crowded and unsanitary prisons.”
Myanmar’s prison system, made up of 46 prisons and 50 labor camps, holds an estimated 92,000 inmates, although the official capacity is 66,000 according to HRW.
There are 74 political prisoners serving sentences and 139 detainees being held while facing trial on politically motivated charges, according to Thailand-based advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma).
Only 18 political prisoners were among the thousands of released inmates as of April 17 and some 58 remain behind bars, according to AAPP.
“We call on the government to free remaining political prisoners immediately and unconditionally,” the group said in an April 17 statement.
It also urged the government to free more prisoners as soon as possible “to reduce the harmful effects of Covid-19 in prisons.”
Amnesty International last week called on Myanmar to release all prisoners of conscience and drop all charges against those facing imprisonment solely for their peaceful activities.
At least 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019 alone, according to Athan, a Yangon-based civil society group.
In 2019, the New Year amnesty included the high-profile cases of two Reuters journalists who spent more than 500 days behind bars over their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine state.
Authorities in Yangon last night launched a nighttime curfew in Myanmar’s largest city in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The curfew from 10pm to 4am will affect some seven million people and will remain in effect until further notice, according to the Yangon Region Government.
Mandalay imposed a similar curfew on April 17, with other major cities across the country expected to follow suit.
A stay-at-home order has been imposed in seven townships in Yangon where Covid-19 infections are relatively high. Only civil servants, corporate employees, delivery workers and medical personnel will be allowed to leave their homes. Anyone who fails to comply faces a jail term of up to six months.