YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's president pardoned at least 20 political prisoners on Friday, just ahead of an historic state visit to the United States that will highlight the two sides' improved relations brought about by the former pariah nation's democratic reforms.
Ye Aung, a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, said 20 prisoners had been freed so far Friday, with more releases expected. The exact number to be released was unclear, though a former prisoner who tracks releases, Ba Myo Thein, said he had heard that at least 32 would be freed.
President Thein Sein will visit the White House on Monday, the first state visit by a Myanmar leader in almost 47 years.
The U.S. applied sanctions against Myanmar's previous military regime for its poor human rights record. Thein Sein has implemented several reforms since his election in 2010, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners. The U.S. in turn eased most sanctions. Last November, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar.
It has become a pattern for prison amnesties to coincide with high-profile international or regional meetings as a way of highlighting the government's benevolent policies. Thein Sein pardoned 93 prisoners, including at least 59 political detainees in April, a day after the European Union lifted sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation.
A group campaigning for democracy in Myanmar – which is also known by its old name, Burma – accuses Thein Sein's government of using political prisoners for public relations purposes.
"Thein Sein seems to have judged, sadly apparently correctly, that the Obama administration is particularly gullible and likely to respond positively to this kind of manipulative use of political prisoner releases," Burma Campaign UK said in a prepared statement.
The release of political detainees has been a key concern of the United States and Washington wants all political prisoners freed.
The group also expressed concern that Thein Sein's democratic reforms were incomplete.
"Thein Sein has also left almost every repressive law used to jail political prisoners in place," the statement said. "Almost all the releases of political prisoners have only been released conditionally, meaning that if they engage in political activities which the government does not like they can be put back in jail and have to serve a new prison term and their old prison term."
President's office director Maj. Zaw Htay's responded on his Facebook page to such criticism. He said Thein Sein doesn't use political prisoners as tools, and that his interest is just to have an all- inclusive process.
Ye Aung, who is a former prisoner himself, said many of those freed Friday had been identified by his committee as political detainees, and he looked forward to the release of all such prisoners.
"According to our list there are still 160 political prisoners remaining in prison. We are still scrutinizing the list and there could be more," he said.
The government had routinely denied the existence of political prisoners, saying all people sentenced to jail have been convicted legitimately of breaking the nation's laws, but Thein Sein's administration recently conceded that there are political detainees, and formed the committee with government officials and former political prisoners to tally and report who remains imprisoned.
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This picture taken on May 4, 2012 shows Thaung Sein (R) holding a picture of his son Aye Aung, a political prisoner detained at Kalay prison in northwest Sagaing Division, at their family home in Yangon. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages)
An activist from Free Burma Coalition-Philippines (FBC-PHI) raises his fists with mock chain during a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Manila on March 13, 2012, urging the Myanmese government to release all political prisoners and repeal all repressive laws ahead of its by-elections on April 1. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on February 17, 2012 shows former detained Myanmar activist Ko Ko Gyi recalling his days in prison during an interview in Yangon. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Political activist Htay Kywe (L), a prominent opponent of the regime and one of the leaders of a 1988 student uprising who spent more than 13 years in prison, is greeted by supporters as he arrives at Yangon international airport following his release from detention a day before, on January 14, 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this April 26, 2012 photo, Myanmar San Myint, mother of former student activist Aye Aung, cries during an interview in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Monday, Jan. 16, 2012 file photo, Shin Gambira, a prominent Buddhist monk who was one of hundreds of political prisoners freed in Myanmar, attends a ceremony of "Pray for Peace and Religious Unity" at a church in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win, File)
Myanmar blogger and prominent political activist Nay Phone Latt (L) walks out of the prison following his release from detention in Hpa-an, in the country's eastern Karen state on January 13, 2012. (Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists of the support group Free Burma Coalition hold up masks of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as they stand next to mock prison cell bars during a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Manila on July 31, 2009. (Nat Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)