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Saturday 1 October 2016

Burma frees more than 100 political prisoners

Published 09/04/2016 | 05:51

Ms Suu Kyi is effectively in charge of Burma's new government, although she is blocked from serving as president
Ms Suu Kyi is effectively in charge of Burma's new government, although she is blocked from serving as president

More than 100 political prisoners have been freed in Burma under an amnesty ordered by the country's new de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as her first official act.

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Police reportedly said 113 political detainees were freed across the country.

Their freedom came along with a general amnesty for ordinary convicts ahead of Burma's traditional New Year festival, often the occasion for prisoner releases.

The move was praised by human rights advocates, but a jarring note was struck when two peace activists were each sentenced to two years with hard labour for activities bringing them into contact with an armed ethnic rebel group that has been battling the central government.

A court in the central city of Mandalay sentenced Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt under a law barring associating with an unlawful organisation for their contacts with the Kachin Independence Army, a guerrilla group in the country's far north.

Both had already been sentenced in February to two years' imprisonment for immigration law violations.

The two are members of an interfaith religious organisation and said that they had been seeking to help refugees from fighting. Both are also Muslims, a minority that has faced increasing pressure and violence in recent years in overwhelmingly Buddhist Burma.

Their case was generally overlooked in the euphoria over the release of prisoners, especially more than 60 students and activists in central Burma who had been held for a year pending trial after being arrested for their protest against changes in education policy.

Photos from the scene showed some of the freed prisoners being presented with bouquets and garlands by well-wishers.

Rights groups estimated that 100 political detainees remained in prison when a military-backed government was succeeded by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party late last month. About 400 others were being held pending trial, including the 60 students in the town of Tharrawaddy. Different procedures are required for the release of people from the two groups.

Laura Haigh, from Amnesty International, said: "Today's release of most of the student protesters is a huge step forward for human rights in Burma, and we are delighted that these men and women will walk free. It sends a strong message about the new government's intention to end the cycle of political arrest and detention in Burma."

In Washington, US state department spokesman Mark Toner commended the government's "early demonstrated commitment to human rights". He told reporters that the US stands ready to support Burma on further democratic reform.

However, he had no announcement to make on removal of the remaining sanctions that Washington has in place against Burma - which mostly target officials of the former ruling junta.

Under the previous government that took power in 2011, more than 1,100 political detainees were released. The junta that held power before then kept Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for a number of years, and jailed hundreds of her supporters and other critics.

Ms Suu Kyi, who holds the specially created post of state counsellor, announced in a statement on the Facebook page of the office of president Htin Kyaw that the release of political prisoners was a priority. It was her first official act in her new job, which is akin to that of prime minister.

By agreement of her party, Ms Suu Kyi is the de facto head of government, though the military-era constitution does not allow her to be president because her two sons have British citizenship.

Shortly before her party won a landslide victory in last November's election, she announced her intention to run the government by being "above the president".

Press Association

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