Myanmar frees prisoners before change of govt

Recently released political prisoners and a supporter outside Insein Prison. A director at the president's office said that 102 prisoners would be freed and 77 death sentences would be reduced to life imprisonment.
Recently released political prisoners and a supporter outside Insein Prison. A director at the president's office said that 102 prisoners would be freed and 77 death sentences would be reduced to life imprisonment.PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON • Myanmar began releasing the first of about 100 prisoners yesterday, government officials said, days before a Parliament dominated by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi's party sits for the first time after an election victory in November.

The freeing of prisoners by the outgoing administration of President Thein Sein comes after US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Myanmar to release all political prisoners during a visit on Monday.

The amnesty boosts the legacy of Mr Thein Sein, whose semi-civilian government in 2011 replaced a junta that had run Myanmar for 49 years, ushering in a series of political and economic reforms.

It deprives the incoming government of Ms Suu Kyi, who had been likely to push for a quick prisoner release, of an easy political win.

"So far, 18 political prisoners were released from Insein Prison. They will release a total of 21 people today," a prison official told Reuters.

Insein is one of Myanmar's largest prisons. It is used for jailing political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi in 2003, along with criminals. It is notorious for its poor conditions and bad treatment of inmates.

"I hope the new government will bring solutions for the problems that the previous government created for the people,"said Mr Htay Aung, 48, released yesterday from Insein. He spent nine months in jail for taking part in several protests.

Phillip Blackwood, a New Zealand citizen jailed in March for 21/2 years for insulting religion, was likely to be released. He had used an image of Buddha wearing headphones to promote a party at a Yangon bar. Blackwood, the highest-profile foreign political prisoner held in Myanmar, has been held at Insein.

Mr Zaw Htay, a director at the president's office, said on his Facebook page that 102 prisoners would be freed. He added that 77 death sentences would be reduced to life imprisonment.

A new parliament dominated by Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy will sit for the first time on Feb 1.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Myanmar frees prisoners before change of govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe