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Myanmar pardons political offenders

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December 30, 2013 11:35 PM EST | AP

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar freed five prisoners Tuesday and more are expected to be released next week as part of pledge by the country's president to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

"Five political prisoners whose names we submitted were freed today and more people are expected to be freed in the next batch in the first week of January," said Bo Kyi, a member of the Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee.

President Thein Sein granted a pardon Monday to those convicted of or charged with a variety of political offenses, such as unlawful association, high treason, contempt of government and violations of the peaceful assembly law.

In addition, the decree halted all ongoing trials and investigations connected with those charges.

The amnesty follows a promise by Thein Sein in July that all political prisoners will be freed by the end of the year.

"We welcome the presidential pardon order. However, several steps need to be taken to maintain a level of zero political prisoners. There must be rule of law and more political freedom to maintain that level," Bo Kyi said.

"So far, five political prisoners from district prisons are being freed today and activists who had been sentenced under Section 18 of the peaceful assembly law will be freed today from Yangon's Insein prison," said Ye Aung, a former political prisoner and member of the government's political prisoner scrutinizing committee.

Ye Aung said about 200 activists facing trial under political charges will immediately have those charges dropped.

The pardon may not cover all prisoners listed by the committee as political detainees as some were also convicted of other crimes, such as murder, he said.

Since Thein Sein became president, he has freed about 1,300 political prisoners, Ye Aung said.

Thein Sein, a former general who was elected president in 2011 after five decades of repressive military rule, instituted political and financial reforms to lift the country's sagging economy. It had faced sanctions from Western nations — now mostly lifted — because of its poor human rights record and undemocratic rule.

The release of political detainees has been a benchmark used by Western nations to judge Thein Sein's administration, with previous releases triggering decisions by some nations to ease sanctions.

Ye Aung said that during Thein Sein's administration, many activists had been charged under a section of the Peaceful Assembly Law that carries a maximum one-year prison term for those who stage protests without official permission.