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Five journalists were among at least 13 political prisoners released on Thursday, when pardons were granted to 6,996 inmates across Burma in a presidential amnesty.
Nine purged military intelligence officers, including Brig-Gen Than Tun, and 155 Chinese loggers were included in the amnesty.
The five media workers – Kyaw Zaw Hein, Win Tin, Thura Aung, Yin Min Htun, and Kyaw Min Khaing – from the now defunct Bi-Mon Te Nay weekly news journal had been sentenced to two years each in October 2014. They were found guilty of sedition charges after the journal published a report repeating an activist group’s claims that Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had teamed up with several ethnic politicians to form an interim government.
Another prisoner of conscience who was set free was former army major Kyaw Swar Win, who was jailed last year after signing a petition calling for constitutional reform.
Speaking to reporters after his release from Mandalay prison, he said, “I was arrested on the same day I signed the petition on 4 July 2014. The military court issued a verdict on 11 August and I was locked up for about three and half months before being transferred to prison on 5 December. I spent a total of five months and one day in military custody, and throughout that time I was denied permission to shower. I came out in a rash due to the lack of hygiene and was only allowed to bathe after a doctor’s recommendation. I was not allowed to walk around, and was kept in a tiny cell.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a total of 13 political dissidents were released. It also listed: Kaung Tun and Myint Aung, freed from Pakokku prison; Aung Ko Latt, who was accused of being a Karen guerilla in 2011, and sentenced under the Unlawful Association and Explosives Act; and Tin Maung Kyi, Min Zaw Oo and Win Soe, who were freed from Insein prison in Rangoon.
Also released from Insein was Michaungkan community leader Sein Than, sentenced to two years in prison for participating in a series of peaceful protests in response to failures by the authorities to resolve his community’s land dispute.
According to Amnesty International, an additional four political prisoners were released: Rohingya leaders Ba Thar, Kyaw Khin, Kyaw Myint and his son Hla Myint, who were imprisoned in March this year. The four men were first arrested in April 2013 following a community protest against the government-led population registration exercise, which did not allow members of the Rohingya community to identify as Rohingya. The four men were sentenced to between five and eight years in prison.
In a statement on the presidential amnesty, Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said, “We are delighted that [these men] can now walk free and return to their families, even if nothing can make up for the ordeal they have had to go through. But the fact remains that none of them should have been imprisoned in the first place.
“We have seen an alarming increase in arrests and harassment of peaceful activists in Myanmar in the past year, with an increasing number of prisoners of conscience languishing behind bars. Releases like the one today will have little long-term effect if the laws that allow the authorities to crackdown on human rights defenders, students, journalists and government critics remain on the books.”
Among the nearly 7,000 criminals freed in the amnesty were 155 Chinese workers, 153 of whom had been sentenced to life imprisonment just under two weeks ago for illegal logging in Kachin State. Two others, who are minors, were each handed a 10-year sentence. Beijing lodged a diplomatic protest last week after the verdict.
Lawyer Khin Maung, a defence attorney for the Chinese loggers, said the 155 were pardoned under constitutional Article 204(a).
“They were brought out of Myitkyina prison at 12:30pm in a bus convoy under supervision of the State Immigration director,” he said, adding that the group were escorted by Chinese officials in five buses to the Chinese border.
The 155 Chinese were among 210 foreigners freed on Thursday.