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Myanmar amnesty to release 514 more prisoners

YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar announced on Monday that it is releasing 514 prisoners under an amnesty, including political detainees and some foreigners.

The Information Ministry did not name the prisoners, so it was unclear how many political detainees were among them, although almost 50 were identified by fellow activists who had been in touch with them.

Many political prisoners are in remote areas where communications are difficult, so the extent of the release may not be known for several days. Prominent activist and former detainee Ko Ko Gyi said he expected about 100 political prisoners to be covered by the amnesty.

The announcement came the same day that Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar’s government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and lift travel and other restrictions on those who have already been freed. At least 300-500 political detainees are believed to remain behind bars.

The New York-based group also asked that independent international monitors be allowed access to prisons to allow a full accounting of all remaining political prisoners.

The government of President Thein Sein has made freedom for political prisoners a centerpiece of its reform policies, seeking international favor after almost five decades of repressive army rule. Earlier amnesties helped convince Western nations to ease sanctions they had imposed against the previous military-led regime.

The latest release comes a week before Thein Sein is to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The ministry said the prisoners were released so they can participate in nation-building, and to help maintain friendly ties with neighboring countries.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had estimated that about 330 political detainees remained jailed in Myanmar, also called Burma, while other activists said the total may be at least 100 more.

In July the government granted an amnesty to 80 prisoners including more than 20 political detainees.

“While another prisoner amnesty is welcome in principle, like everyone else we’re left waiting to see the list before we assess how many political prisoners are included, what it means and how significant it is,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The problem is there is a lack of transparency from the Burma government about who is a political prisoner, where they are, and how many are left – and to date, our recommendation that the Burma government work with the international community to devise a clear and transparent process to access, assess and immediately release political prisoners has fallen on deaf ears,” he said.

Han Tha Myint, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said party members in the central city of Mandalay reported 45 political prisoners being freed there.

Also released was a retired schoolteacher, Shwe Htoo, who had been serving a 42-year sentence after being convicted of attempting to incite rebellion and charges involving explosives, said Zaw Thet Htwe, a journalist who monitors prisoner releases.

Robertson said aid donors seeking to promote reforms in Myanmar should press its government “to meet its human rights commitments by immediately freeing the remaining political prisoners and lifting all restrictions against them.”

The group said the Home Affairs Ministry “has refused to issue passports to many former political prisoners, including democracy and human rights activists, public interest lawyers, and journalists.” Some have also been prevented from resuming their university studies, it said.