33 Burmese political prisoners released

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Wednesday, 04 January 2012 12:01 Kyaw Kha

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – A total of 1,400 prisoners including 33 political prisoners were released from Burmese prisons across the country under a presidential commutation order, according to information collected by Mizzima.

Prisoners were released from Insein, Obo (Mandalay), Taungoo, Putao, Myeik, Katha, Pyay, Taunggyi, Pathein, Sittwe and Thayat and Thayawaddy prisons.

Mizzima’s information includes figures compiled by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and Burma-based organizations that track political prisoners. The organizations are still compiling information to identify the newly released political prisoners.

On Monday, state-run television announced the presidential commutation order which said death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment; prisoners serving sentences of more than 30 years would be reduced to 30 years; prisoners serving 20 to 30 year sentences would be reduced to 20 years; and prisoners serving less than 20 years would be reduced by to one-quarter of their prison term.

High profile 88-Generation student leaders who were sentenced to 65 years in prison and Shan leader Khun Tun Oo who was sentenced to 93 years in prison will not been released.

The Network for Families of Political Prisoners issued a statement saying a presidential commutation that failed to give political prisoners’ leaders freedom was “dishonest” and “wrong,” and urged the government to unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.

“We urge the President Thein Sein’s government to open the first door of national reconciliation by stopping such dishonest and wrong actions as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Colonel Saw Lwin, the joint-secretary of the Kayan New Land Party who was released from Obo Prison in Mandalay, urged the government to immediately release prisoners of conscience and prisoners who were unfairly sentenced for the sake of building a new nation.

“The government needs to release all political prisoners unconditionally. Similarly, many prisoners who were sentenced via unfair legislation need to be released. The affairs regarding amending the Constitution need to be conducted as soon as possible for the sake of people,” Colonel Saw Lwin told Mizzima.

National League for Democracy leaders said the presidential commutation was a weak effort by the government if it was truly trying to achieve national reconciliation

Spokesman Nyan Win said, “This is just a commuting of sentences, not an amnesty. Political activists such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who have been sentenced to 65 years in jail, got their sentences commuted to 30 years in prison instead.”

"What families of political prisoners want is absolute freedom," said Kyi Kyi Nyunt, the sister of Min Ko Naing. The two 88-Generation leaders helped organize the protests with Buddhist monks in 2007, resulting in an army crackdown that left scores of people dead or missing, and hundreds jailed.

The NLD said earlier it estimated there were about 591 political prisoners in jail before the recent commutation. The government on October 12, 2010, released 7,500 convicts, including at least 240 known political prisoners. According to the Association for Political Prisoners – Burma, about 2,100 people have been jailed for political reasons by the junta that ruled Burma between 1988 and 2010.

NLD senior leader Win Tin said: "It is very disappointing and devastating. It is clear that political prisoners will not be freed for a long time. Such a move can cause political instability and the tempo of political demands will increase.”

Well-known comedian, former political prisoner and social critic Zarganar Thura said the government has failed to deliver on its promise, after widespread rumors and statements by government officials about a release of political prisoners.

“I once likened the situation of my friends in jail as being in the hands of Somali pirates. I now withdraw this comment. The Somali pirates keep their promise,” Zarganar said on his Facebook page. Zarganar was released from three years in prison in an amnesty last October that freed 6,359 prisoners, including about 200 political detainees.

Political detainees include journalists, pro-democracy activists, government critics, monks involved in anti-government protests and members of Burma's ethnic groups fighting for greater autonomy.

Some human rights groups dismissed the latest government move as almost meaningless.

“It’s rather typical of the government to keep playing these games with prisoners, both common criminal and political. This announced clemency is no different from previous ones in which thousands of prisoners are set free or have sentences reduced with only a handful are political activists,” said David Mathieson, a Burma researcher with Human Rights Watch.

A government official told Agence France Presse that it was unclear how many inmates would be freed overall, but about 800 men and 130 women held in Rangoon were set to be released.