Dozens of Political Prisoners Released as Govt’s Term Nears End

By The Irrawaddy 22 January 2016

RANGOON — More than two dozen political prisoners were released from penitentiaries across Burma on Friday morning, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as President Thein Sein’s term of office enters its 11th hour.

“According to our statistics, 33 political prisoners have been released since this morning,” Aung Myo Kyaw, an AAPP member who is closely monitoring the releases, told The Irrawaddy before noon on Friday.

According to the President’s Office, the release of political prisoners is part of a larger amnesty of more than 100 convicts.

“Burma’s government has today released one New Zealand [national] prisoner and 101 [Burmese] national prisoners and has commuted the death sentences of 77 prisoners—75 males and two females—to life imprisonment,” according to President’s Office director Zaw Htay, who conveyed the information via his Facebook account, where he goes by the name Hmuu Zaw.

Aung Myo Kyaw confirmed that New Zealand national in question was Phil Blackwood, who was convicted to 2.5 years in prison last year for religious defamation, along with two Burmese colleagues, in a case decried by human rights activists.

“The president has granted amnesty following the successful conclusion of 2015 elections, the first Union Peace Conference and the commencement of ‘The World Buddhist Peace Conference,’” Zaw Htay’s post reads.

Aung Myo Kyaw said the prisoners of conscience were released from Insein, Mandalay, Taungoo, Pyay, Nyaung U, Myitkyina, Putao and Hpa-an prisons. Among the released are human rights activists who fought against land-grabbing at the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine project in Sagaing Division, and others protesting military seizure of land in Rangoon’s Michaungkan quarter.

Friday’s releases come just over a month before Thein Sein leaves office at the end of March. On Monday, during his second diplomatic visit to Burma, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the outgoing government to free all remaining political prisoners before the National League for Democracy (NLD) takes power on April 1.

“In response to the requests of personalities and organizations, the president has released the prisoners on social grounds, so that they can serve the interests of the country after their release,” Zaw Htay wrote on Facebook.

This story was updated at 12:19 pm to include comments from President’s Office director Zaw Htay, and at 12:35 to include confirmation of Phil Blackwood’s release.