Detainees freed in Myanmar

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IOL pic dec11 myanmar parliament building

Associated Press

A worker tends the lawn of Myanmar's massive parliamentary complex in Naypyitaw. Picture: Khin Maung Win

Naypyitaw - Myanmar on Wednesday freed 44 political detainees, a presidential adviser said, the latest in a series of prisoner amnesties by the country's reformist regime.

There are still thought to be dozens of activists behind bars in Myanmar, which has won international acclaim for dramatic changes since the end of outright military rule nearly three years ago.

“In total, 44 political prisoners have been released around the country today,” Hla Maung Shwe told AFP.

Hundreds of dissidents have been freed since 2011 and President Thein Sein has pledged to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of the year.

The former general, who took power in March 2011, has earned plaudits and the removal of most western sanctions for reforms that have included freeing hundreds of critics detained under the previous junta.

Under his leadership, the nation has undergone huge changes including the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.

But campaigners say authorities continue to prosecute dissidents under legislation that is either old or does not meet international standards, particularly for protesting without permission.

About 44 more political detainees are still in jail, according to Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

He said a further 200 activists are awaiting trial, some of whom are locked up.

“The government should create rule of law and space for demonstration,” said Bo Kyi, who is a member of a government-appointed committee tasked with identifying political prisoners.

“As long as there are arbitrary detentions, there will be political prisoners.”

Before Myanmar's reforms, rights groups accused the then-junta of wrongfully imprisoning about 2 000 political opponents, dissidents and journalists.

Arbitrary imprisonment was a hallmark of the junta, which denied the existence of political prisoners even as it imposed harsh punishments on rights activists, journalists, lawyers and performers.

Campaigners accuse the government of using the headline-grabbing prisoner releases for political gain and leverage with the international community.

The latest amnesty came as foreign dignitaries gathered in Myanmar's capital for the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games.

Thein Sein, who has won international praise and the removal of most Western sanctions for reforms, announced during his first visit to London in July there would be “no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar” by the end of the year.

The country pardoned 69 inmates in November as it hosted several top-level international delegations, including from the European Union.

Soon afterwards, a United Nations rights committee called on Myanmar to stick to its pledge to free political inmates as it passed a toned-down version of its annual resolution on the former pariah state.

Many of those released on Wednesday were connected to the country's ethnic conflicts, Bo Kyi said.

As part of reforms Thein Sein's government has reached tentative peace deals with most major armed ethnic minority rebel groups in the country, which has been racked by civil wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

But fighting in the northern state of Kachin, near the border with China, has continued since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011, leaving tens of thousands displaced. - AFP


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