Myanmar junta to release more than 6,000 prisoners


Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 5

Myanmar’s military government announced an amnesty on Friday night for more than 6,000 prisoners, but did not mention whether any political detainees would be among those released.

State radio and television announced that the convicts from various prisons would be released starting yesterday. The brief announcement said that 6,313 prisoners were being freed in recognition of their good conduct and so that they would be able to participate in a general election planned for next year.

Human rights groups estimate that the regime holds more than 2,100 political detainees, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial.

When the junta freed 9,002 prisoners last September, only about a dozen were political detainees.

In recent months, the junta’s courts have sentenced more than 100 dissidents, including some of the country’s most prominent activists, to prison terms that would keep them incarcerated well past the 2010 polls. The junta says the elections will restore democracy, but critics charge they will be a sham to keep the military in control.

The top UN envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, who recently visited the country, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that he had not received any official communique from the government and was waiting to see how many of the prisoners were criminals and how many were political prisoners.

“At the same time, I believe it’s fair to welcome the release of prisoners, particularly political prisoners,” Gambari said.

UN spokeswoman Michele Montas echoed Gambari, saying: “It still remains unclear whether and how many political prisoners this deal may include.”

“We encourage the government to release all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to decide whether to visit Myanmar, after Gambari reported little progress in political dialogue with the country’s government on Friday.

After a closed-door briefing from m Gambari, who visited the country last month, Security Council members said it would be up to Ban to decide if a visit would be productive.

French ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said: “It’s up to the secretary-general to decide if the time is right and under what conditions he wants to go.”

British ambassador John Sawers said: “Should the secretary-general decide he will visit, that will be a welcome step ... It’s up to [him] to go. He’s not going to be sent there or refused support.”

Montas said no decision on the trip had been taken.

Gambari, who is tasked with bringing opposition leaders and the government together, met last month with detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but failed to secure a meeting with Myanmar’s head of state Senior General Than Shwe. Gambari said his visit had been “more balanced,” because he met with opposition and minority representatives.