69 imprisoned activists freed in Myanmar

A released student protester and family members during an emotional reunion outside the courthouse in Tharrawaddy yesterday.
A released student protester and family members during an emotional reunion outside the courthouse in Tharrawaddy yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Students released as part of Suu Kyi's pledge to free political prisoners and activists

THARRAWADDY (Myanmar) • A Myanmar court yesterday freed dozens of jailed students in the first wave of detainee releases after Ms Aung San Suu Kyi pledged that freeing activists and political prisoners would be the first priority of her new government.

There were jubilant scenes in the sweltering Tharrawaddy courthouse in central Myanmar after a judge told young activists that they could go home more than a year after they were arrested over their education protest that was crushed in a violent police crackdown in March last year.

"You 69 are all freed now (in this case) without charge," said township judge Chit Myat. Three of the 69 face further hearings in other courts.

Ahead of the releases, families had gathered at prisons in Yangon, the largest city, and in Tharrawaddy, where expectant families clutching bunches of flowers greeted students as they arrived at the courthouse in a police truck.

"I am very excited. I will only believe it when my friends are really released," said 23-year-old student Shwe Kyal Moe, who was injured in the crackdown but released on bail last year after serving four months in jail.

Myanmar has scores of political prisoners languishing in its jails and hundreds of detained activists awaiting trial despite reforms in recent years as the military loosened its grip on power after half a century of repressive junta rule.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of jailed dissidents in Myanmar, there are 121 political prisoners being held in Myanmar's jails, while a further 414 were believed to be awaiting trial ahead of the student activists' release.

Ms Suu Kyi said on Thursday that she would prioritise releasing activists - an issue laden with significance for herself and MPs in her party. Ms Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest and more than 100 current National League for Democracy lawmakers served time in the country's notorious prisons.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline '69 imprisoned activists freed in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe