/ 22 February 2009

Political prisoners among 6 000 freed in Burma

More than a dozen ”prisoners of conscience”, including five Buddhist monks arrested in 2003, have been freed in military-ruled Burma as part of a general amnesty, opposition and activist sources said.

The regime announced the release of over 6 000 inmates on Friday after United Nations human rights rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana ended a five-day visit during which he met a handful of political prisoners in Rangoon’s Insein Prison.

”As far as we can confirm, there were 11 prisoners of conscience, including five Buddhist monks, among those freed from Insein on Saturday,” a Yangon-based activist told Reuters late on Saturday.

The remaining six were from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political groups.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who began her latest detention in May 2003, is among 2 162 people believed to be in detention in Burma for their political or religious beliefs.

Burma’s military junta, which has ruled unchecked since 1962, denies the existence of any political prisoners, saying all detainees have committed crimes.

State-owned MRTV said on Friday the prisoners were being released for the ”social consideration of their families” and to take part in elections promised for 2010, part of a seven-step ”roadmap to democracy”.

Western governments dismiss the roadmap as a charade, and human rights groups accuse the regime of seeking to eliminate all political opposition ahead of the election.

Among those released from Insein Prison was Thet Wai, an NLD official in Rangoon who was sentenced to two years in jail in 2008 for reporting incidents of forced labour to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

At least three other NLD members were freed from Myitkyina Prison in northern Kachin state.

They included Dr Zaw Myint Maung, an NLD MP elected in the 1990 election that his party won only to see the military ignore the results, NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said.

Zaw Myint Maung (58) was accused of forming a parallel government in Burma’s second city of Mandalay and imprisoned in 1991.

Special courts have sentenced scores of dissidents to lengthy prison terms of up to 65 years in the past several months.

The most prominent activists have been sent to the furthest corners of the country, making it almost impossible for relatives to deliver food and medicine to them, raising the possibility of the prisoners dying behind bars. – Reuters