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Burma freed one of its most famous political prisoners on Wednesday under an amnesty that was expected to include at least dozens more dissidents jailed in the authoritarian state.
The freedom of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, who include pro-democracy campaigners, journalists, monks and lawyers, has long been a key demand of Western powers that have slapped sanctions on Burma.
Zarganar, a prominent comedian and vocal government critic, was among those released on Wednesday 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 told AFP, adding that 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 organising 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, who was a vocal critic of the old military junta, was sentenced to 59 years’ imprisonment, later reduced to 35 years. He is believed to suffer from heart disease.
It was not immediately clear how many dissidents were included in the amnesty.
But a government official, who did not want to be named, said about 30 political detainees would be freed in Rangoon, 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 Suu Kyi, who was freed in November after seven straight years of detention.
State television announced on Tuesday that more than 6,300 elderly, sick, disabled or well-behaved prisoners would be granted an amnesty from Wednesday “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.
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 last November.
He has been applauded by international observers for holding direct talks with Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades locked up by the junta.
A top US official, Kurt Campbell, on Monday hailed “dramatic developments” in Burma including what he described as “very consequential dialogue” between the Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leadership.
He hinted that concrete moves towards democracy by Burma could lead to an easing of sanctions.
“We will match their steps with comparable steps,” he said.
The new regime, which came to power after elections held a few days before Suu Kyi’s release, appears keen to improve its image and in August held the first talks between her and Thein Sein.
Suu Kyi, whose party won 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power, has said she believes Thein Sein genuinely wants to carry out reforms, but cautioned it was too soon to say whether he would succeed.