83 prisoners pardoned, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw says in New Year's Day statement

Relatives of detained activists stand near a poster with the images of Myanmar president Htin Kyaw. PHOTO: EPA

YANGON (AFP/REUTERS) - Myanmar President Htin Kyaw signed a pardon for 83 prisoners on the country's New Year's Day, his office said in a statement on Sunday (April 17).

Among them were at least 63 political prisoners, according to a watchdog group, making this his first major political act since he was sworn in last month.

"The 83 prisoners will be freed by amnesty... on the first day of Myanmar's New Year," read the President's statement, which was posted on Facebook on Sunday morning.

The order, signed by Mr Htin Kyaw on Saturday, said the pardon was aimed at "national reconciliation and peace of mind" as part of celebrations of the Myanmar new year.

"According to our documents, 63 political prisoners are released from various prisons by the amnesty of the president," said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

"As far as I know, (those being released) are people considered by rights groups to be political prisoners," a senior prison department official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, told Reuters.

Among those released were four journalists and an executive from the newspaper Unity Journal, who were sentenced to 10 years hard labour in 2014 for reporting on an alleged military chemical weapons factory, he said.

In his New Year's Day speech broadcast on television, Mr Htin Kyaw stressed his government's determination to release political prisoners, who were routinely jailed under the military leaders that strangled free expression in Myanmar for decades.

"We are trying to set the political prisoners, political activists and the students who face trials concerned with politics free," the President said in his first lengthy public address since taking office.

Mr Htin Kyaw was tapped earlier this year to become the country's first civilian leader in decades by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran democracy activist who still controls the administration but is barred from the presidency by a junta-era charter.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD), which is packed full of former political prisoners jailed for their activism under military rule, ended nearly half a century of army domination when they took power in a historic transition in March.

Ms Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years under house arrest, pledged in a statement earlier this month to make releasing prisoners of conscience a priority of her administration.

Since the NLD took power, the authorities have dropped charges against nearly 200 political activists, according to the police, including dozens of students who spent more than a year in jail over an education protest.

Mr Htin Kyaw was little known outside his home country before taking office, but is a longtime friend and close aide of Ms Suu Kyi.

Despite being blocked from the presidency, she wields formal power over the government through her newly fashioned role as state counsellor, which the NLD created for Ms Suu Kyi through their hefty majority in Parliament.

She has also taken on several cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

The jailing of dissidents was one of many repressive policies by the former junta that garnered global support for Ms Suu Kyi's democracy struggle.

Watchdog groups in Myanmar say there are still hundreds of activists facing trial or being held in the country's notorious prisons, many of them arrested under the quasi-civilian government that stepped down last month after five years of transitioning the country from junta rule.

Myanmar's New Year's holiday, a Buddhist celebration known as Thingyan, falls in mid-April and sees most offices close while people line the streets to douse each other with water to wash off the past year's sins.

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