Myanmar releases 600 prisoners

Friday, September 18, 2009

YANGON - Myanmar authorities Friday released an estimated 600 inmates, including some political prisoners, from Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison as part of an amnesty for 7,114 inmates nationwide.

Insein authorities invited journalists to witness the release of a first batch of 359 prisoners at 1.30 p.m. Another 250 were released at 5.30 p.m.

The amnesty will last several days to release 7,114 prisoners nationwide, Director General of Prison Department Zaw Win said.

“About 250 prisoners detained for security reasons would be free out of 7,114 prisoners,” Zaw Win told reporters while insisting that there were no political prisoners in Myanmar’s prisons.

Myanmar has an estimated 2,100 political prisoners in its jails, according to Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups. Western democracies have repeatedly demanded that political prisoners be released.

The junta’s most famous prisoner is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 64, who has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house detention.

A special court set up in Insein Prison last month found Suu Kyi guilty of breaking the terms of her last six-year term of house detention by allowing US national John William Yettaw to swim to her lakeside home-cum-prison in Yangon, albeit as an uninvited guest.

The court initially sentenced Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to three years in prison with hard labour, which was later commuted to 18 months under house arrest.

Prison amnesties have been held in the past to mark Sep 18, 1988, the day that General Saw Maung seized power and set up the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military regime that thereafter cracked down on mass pro-democracy demonstrations, leaving an estimated 3,000 people dead.

Among the political prisoners released from Insein Friday was former student activist Win Myint, 56, who was arrested 21 years ago for participating in the Aug 8, 1988 mass anti-military demonstration.

Win Myint had four months to go on his sentence before being granted an amnesty.

Another political prisoner was Than Than Htay, 42, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) from Yangon.

She was arrested in June 2004.

“I feel happy and I will continue to work in political affairs,” Than Than said.

Myanmar has been under a military dictatorship since 1962. Although it allowed an election in 1990, it has ignored the landslide victory of the NLD led by Suu Kyi in the polls for the past 19 years.

A new election is planned in 2010, which most observers fear will be neither free nor fair nor able to get the military out of politics.

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