Myanmar prisoner release fails to impress

Thousands are freed but critics say most were common criminals and not political prisoners.

    Critics say Myanmar's release of prisoners is a sham that aims to convince the West to remove economic sanctions [AFP]

    Myanmar's new government has released thousands of prisoners and reduced others' sentences in an amnesty critics dismissed as a token aimed at mending its international image.

    Activists said the vast majority of those released from prisons across the country on Tuesday were common criminals and only a few were political prisoners.

    The amnesty,  announced by Thein Sein, the country's president, came just days after United Nations special envoy, Vijay Nambiar, visited Myanmar and urged the release of all political prisoners.

    According to the presidential decree, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and many terms
    were reduced by one year.

    Zaw Win, Myanmar's prison department chief,  had earlier said 14,000 prisoners would be freed on Tuesday.

    About 2,000 people were freed from Yangon's notorious Insein Prison, but activists said only two
    political detainees were among them.

    One of the prisoners freed - Ma Mya Aye - was released three days earlier than the original release date. "In fact, my prison term officially expires on May 20," he said.

    Criticism

    Aung Thein, a legal expert, echoed widespread criticism over the prisoners' releases.

    "I can't call it a general amnesty. It will just benefit only criminal prisoners who have almost finished their terms," he said.

    The US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the failure to release political detainees showed Myanmar's new government had no intention to introduce democratic reforms.

    "Today, Thein Sein's government has shown it's true colours," it said in a statement. "This can hardly be
    considered progress."

    There are around 2,200 political prisoners in the country, according to rights groups.

    The large number of political detentions has been central to the imposition of economic sanctions on Myanmar's rulers since a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988. Their release has long been a key demand by the West.

    Myanmar held its first parliamentary election in two decades last November but critics said the poll was a sham and the previous military regime was still holding all the power.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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