Thu, Oct 13, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Myanmar releases top dissident

MASS AMNESTY:More than 6,300 elderly, sick, disabled or well-behaved prisoners are to be freed, state TV said. Scores, like comedian Zarganar, are political detainees

AFP, YANGON, Myanmar

Comedian, actor and political prisoner Zarganar, who was released from Myitkyina prison in northern Myanmar, smiles at Yangon’s domestic airport yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Myanmar yesterday freed one of its most famous political prisoners under an amnesty by the new leadership that was believed to include at least dozens more dissidents in the authoritarian state.

The freedom of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, including pro-democracy campaigners, journalists, monks and lawyers, has long been a key demand of Western powers that have slapped sanctions on Myanmar.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said that at least 48 political detainees were understood to be on the amnesty list, but added that the figure could yet increase.

Zarganar, a prominent comedian and vocal government critic, was among those released as part of a pardon of more than 6,300 prisoners by the new leadership, his family said.

“I have talked to him. He is free now,” the activist’s sister-in-law Ma Nyein said, adding that he was expected to be flown home from Myitkyina in northern Kachin State where he was being held.

Zarganar was arrested in 2008 after organizing deliveries of aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which left 138,000 people dead or missing and prompted international criticism of the regime’s slow response.

The famous satirist was sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to 35 years. He is believed to suffer from heart disease.

It was not immediately clear exactly how many other dissidents were included in the amnesty.

However, a government official, who did not want to be named, said about 30 political detainees would be freed in Yangon, mostly members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Separately, an NLD member said about two dozen political prisoners would be released elsewhere.

A mass pardon of dissidents would be arguably the clearest sign yet of change under a new government that has reached out to critics — including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed in November .

State TV announced on Tuesday that more than 6,300 elderly, sick, disabled or well-behaved prisoners would, starting yesterday, be granted an amnesty “on humanitarian grounds.” It said freeing detainees would allow them to “help to build a new nation.”

Many political prisoners were sentenced to decades in prison and have endured “torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to Amnesty International.

Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general and senior junta figure, has surprised critics by signalling a series of political reforms since taking power following a controversial election in November.

He has been applauded by international observers for holding direct talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades locked up by the junta.

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