YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) - Myanmar will release almost 25,000 prisoners in an amnesty to mark the traditional New Year, the president's office said on Friday (April 17).
President Win Myint said 24,896 people jailed across the country, including 87 foreigners, would be freed unconditionally "to bring delights to the citizens of Myanmar and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns".
The president gave no details of the crimes the prisoners were convicted of.
The Southeast Asian nation grants an annual amnesty to thousands of prisoners to mark its New Year holiday, but this is the largest ever recorded.
It comes as governments around the world – including the US, parts of Europe, and Colombia – grapple with overcrowded prisons as fears spiral of virus outbreaks behind bars.
Myanmar is under a nationwide lockdown and there has been growing pressure to release inmates from what Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls "horribly overcrowded and unsanitary" jails.
There are currently nearly 100,000 inmates across the country’s prisons which have space for just 62,000, according to HRW.
Mr Zaw Zaw, a spokesman for the prisons department, told Reuters by telephone the large number being released was not linked to concern about the coronavirus,
Myanmar has reported 85 cases and four deaths from the coronavirus, which emerged in neighbouring China late last year and has spread around the world.
Crowds gathered outside Insein prison in the commercial capital of Yangon hoping to greet family members, despite a ban on gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Last year, about 23,000 people were freed over several days in the annual amnesty, according to state media. More than 8,000 were released the previous year.
It was not immediately clear whether the release would include anyone convicted in connection with acts of dissent against the government.
The prison department says there are no political prisoners in Myanmar but rights groups say dozens of people are in prison because of their political activity.
Asked if any such prisoners were among those being released, Mr Zaw Zaw said the prison department did not put "labels" on freed prisoners.
An official at Insein prison said he did not know if any activists or dissidents were being freed.
When Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2016, after more than half a century of military rule, one of her first acts was to release hundreds of political prisoners.
"The government doesn't actually acknowledge political prisoners but we were asked for some lists and we gave a list of over 70," Mr Aung Myo Kyaw of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.
"We still don't know if any of them are released."
More than 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019, according to human rights non-profit group Athan.
Those behind bars include members of a satirical poetry troupe and students imprisoned last month for protesting against a government-imposed Internet shutdown.
While the military retains extensive powers, activists say the civilian government has failed to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap repressive laws stifling dissent, tightening restrictions on civil society.