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259 prisoners freed in presidential amnesty ahead of peace summit

A former political prisoner greets family members outside Mandalay’s Obo Prison on Wednesday. (Photo: DVB)

Nearly 260 prisoners were released in a presidential amnesty on Wednesday to celebrate the opening of the Union Peace Conference, also dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference, being held in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw this week.

An executive order from the President’s Office dated 23 May said 186 Burmese inmates have been released from prisons around the country to welcome the peace summit, “to understand the Metta [Loving Kindness] and Goodwill of the State,” and as a “gesture of showing leniency for humanitarian reasons.” Another 23 May executive order also declared amnesties for 73 foreigners behind bars to promote good relations between nations.

Among the Burmese inmates to walk free on Wednesday were political prisoners including Hla Phone — a man who was imprisoned after he was accused of being the handler of the Facebook page Kyat Pha Gyi, meaning “big rooster” in Burmese. Hla Phone has consistently denied the charges against him.

Upon walking out of Rangoon’s Insein Prison on Wednesday morning, he said the Telecommunications Law’s article 66(d), an online defamation provision that he was sentenced under, should be abolished.

“I am not for amendment of article 66(d), under which I was jailed, rather I am for complete abolishment of it,” he said.

Hla Phone was sentenced to two years in prison in November 2016 after a Rangoon court found him guilty on multiple charges: the Telecommunication Law’s article 66(d), Penal Code article 505(b) for sedition and the Union Flag Law. He was accused of being Kyat Pha Gyi, a well-known Facebook page that ridiculed Burmese military leaders with photoshopped pictures. Having been arrested in February, he has spent 15 months in the notorious Insein Prison.

Interfaith activists Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt were also released under this week’s amnesty. They were sentenced to four years in prison in 2016 on charges of unlawful association and immigration violations.

A former religious affairs minister, Hsan Hsint, as well as student activists, farmers jailed in land disputes and ethnic villagers with alleged connections to non-state armed groups were among those amnestied.

Hsan Hsint was released from Pegu Division’s Taungoo Prison around 8am on Wednesday. He was jailed in October 2014 by a court in Naypyidaw that sentenced him to 13 years’ imprisonment for misappropriating state funds and sedition.

According to a DVB reporter in Mandalay, there were 46 inmates released from the central Burma city’s Obo Prison, including four students, seven farmers and three foreign nationals.

Earlier this month, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as of the end of April there were 99 political prisoners serving sentences in Burma, 91 awaiting trial in prison and another 115 individuals awaiting trial outside of prison.