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Rights Group: Myanmar Political Prisoners Should Be Freed

Myanmar

10/13/11 07:01 PM ET   AP

YANGON, Myanmar -- A human rights group and prominent activist on Thursday called for Myanmar to free all of its political prisoners after only about 10 percent of an estimated 2,000 were released under a presidential amnesty.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said the amnesty for 6,359 convicts was insincere and primarily an effort to appease the international community. It estimated that at least 207 political prisoners had been freed.

"The use of amnesties by past regimes has come at times of mounting international pressure and been used as tokens of change, rather than substance of change," it said in a statement. "This week's prisoner release does not suggest anything different from earlier amnesties."

A major release of political detainees has been eagerly awaited by Myanmar's opposition, as well as foreign governments and the U.N., as a gesture toward liberalization by the elected government after decades of harsh military rule.

A failure to release a significant number could hamper the country's efforts to burnish its human rights record and win a lifting of Western economic and political sanctions.

The United States, which is seeking ways to step up engagement with Myanmar after years of isolation, has welcomed the releases but is urging the government to go further.

John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday the releases were the most recent sign that Myanmar's President Thein Sein and his advisers "seem to be distancing themselves from the failed policies of the past."

In a statement, the Democrat senator said the committee – which oversees U.S. foreign policy – would be watching to see how the freed people are treated and whether it part of a broader movement that will include the release of all political detainees.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the releases made thus far, and hopes that all political prisoners will be freed, his spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Zarganar, the most prominent dissident freed Wednesday under the amnesty, also issued a plea for all the country's political prisoners to be released.

"Free everyone, free them all, including the former military intelligence chief and his men," the popular comedian and social activist told The Associated Press. He said the former intelligence officers – who once were responsible for persecuting dissidents such as himself and ended up in jail for being on the losing side of a power struggle – should be freed because they were also convicted by the previous military government.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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Filed by Clare Richardson  |