Friday, February 20, 2009

Junta to free 6,000 prisoners: state media

YANGON (AFP) — Myanmar's military government will release more than 6,300 prisoners to allow them to take part in elections next year, state media said Friday, a day after a UN rights envoy visited the country.

State television did not say if any of the country's estimated 2,000 political prisoners would be among those to be freed starting from Saturday, but the main opposition party said some of them may be released.

The authorities were releasing a total of 6,313 prisoners so they would be "able to participate for the benefit of the state, like other citizens, in coming 2010 free and fair elections", state television said.

It added that the government was freeing them to "respect humanitarian reasons and be sympathetic to family members of those prisoners who have learned good morals".

The announcement came a day after the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, wrapped up a six-day trip to the country during which he called for the "progressive" release of political detainees.

State television reported Quintana's visit on Friday but did not give details.

The UN has urged Myanmar's ruling generals to free all political prisoners, the most famous of whom is pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been detained for most of the last 19 years.

A spokesman from her National League for Democracy (NLD), Nyan Win, said that a "few political prisoners may be released but we cannot expect too many."

In September last year Myanmar's junta freed more than 9,000 prisoners, among them Win Tin, a 78-year-old journalist, who was the country's longest-serving political prisoner.

But courts have handed out heavy jail terms to dozens of pro-democracy activists in recent months, many of them involved in protests led by Buddhist monks that erupted in 2007.

The UN has said at least 31 people were killed during a crackdown on the protests.

Myanmar's government has said it will hold multi-party elections in 2010, but critics say the polls are just a way for the generals to solidify and legitimise their power.

The country has been ruled by generals since 1962.

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