Myanmar frees dozens of political prisoners: activists

Myanmar on Tuesday pardoned dozens of political prisoners, activists said, a day after the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against the former pariah state.

At least 59 political prisoners were included in the latest amnesty, Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) told AFP.

"More than 200 political prisoners are still in prison," he added. "Political prisoners should be recognised as political prisoners and be released unconditionally."

The amnesty included 40 former rebels from eastern Shan state jailed for drug trafficking, he said, describing them as "victims of politics".

Another activist, Nyan Lin from the 88 Generation group, confirmed that at least 30 political prisoners were released.

His figure included 17 Muslims arrested and charged under the emergency act after religious clashes in the central town of Kyaukse in 2003.

A Myanmar government official told AFP that in total 93 inmates -- including three foreigners -- were pardoned, but did not identify them.

"This release aims to allow them to participate in building the country and is also based on humanitarian grounds," he said.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States welcomed the latest release but called for the unconditional freedom of all political prisoners.

Myanmar, which long denied their existence, has freed hundreds of political detainees since President Thein Sein took power in March 2011. The government announced a review of all politically related cases in November last year.

Rights groups accused Myanmar's former junta of wrongfully imprisoning about 2,000 political opponents, dissidents and journalists.

And activists say Myanmar's government has used a series of headline-grabbing prisoner releases for political gain.

The country's new reformist regime pardoned dozens of political prisoners in November to coincide with a landmark visit by US President Barack Obama.

"I think the government is releasing prisoners because the EU lifted sanctions. We welcome their release," said activist Toe Kyaw Hlaing, who has been working to secure pardons for imprisoned dissidents.

Rights groups have warned that the EU risks losing leverage over Myanmar by scrapping the measures.

On Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Myanmar of "a campaign of ethnic cleansing" against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, citing evidence of mass graves and forced displacement of tens of thousands.

The Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by the country also known as Burma, have faced crimes against humanity including murder, persecution, deportation and forced transfer, the watchdog said.

The findings of the HRW report -- which the government denied -- were released on the same day that the European Union lifted all remaining sanctions against Myanmar, except an arms embargo, in a move that HRW described as premature.

Myanmar's foreign ministry welcomed the EU move, saying it would be "greatly beneficial to the Myanmar people who have demonstrated their strong determination to achieve democratic reforms and have been actively supporting the government's reform process during the last two years".

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