Myanmar’s largest prisoner release excludes rights activists


Citing humanitarian grounds,Myanmar freed almost 25,000 prisoners in an amnesty to mark the traditional New Year, the president’s office said on Friday, its largest mass pardon in recent years. But several prisoners of conscience and activists whose cases have been documented by Amnesty International, were not included in the presidential pardon.

President Win Myint said 24,896 people jailed across the country, including 87 foreigners, were freed unconditionally “to bring delights to the citizens of Myanmar and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns”.

But Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, Advocacy and Policy, said: “It’s appalling that prisoners of conscience and peaceful activists were largely excluded from yesterday’s presidential amnesty.”

“They should not be in prison in the first place and are victims of repression, harassment and arbitrary arrests by the Myanmar authorities, both the civilian-led government and the military,” she continued.

“Moreover, crowded prisons and detention centres are a very dangerous hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks,” Algar said.

Myanmar has reported 85 cases and four deaths from the coronavirus, which emerged in neighbouring China late last year and has spread around the world.

Crowds gathered outside Insein prison in the commercial capital of Yangon on Friday hoping to greet family members, despite a ban on gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus.

Asked if any political prisoners were among those being released, a spokesman said the prison department does not put “labels” on freed prisoners. An official at Insein prison said he did not know if any activists or dissidents were being freed.

The prison department says there are no political prisoners in Myanmar but rights groups say dozens of people are in prison because of their political activity.

“The government doesn’t actually acknowledge political prisoners but we were asked for some lists and we gave a list of over 70,” said Aung MyoKyaw of the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

More than 331 people were prosecuted in freedom of expression-related cases in 2019, according to human rights nonprofit group Athan.

Those behind bars include members of a satirical poetry troupe and students imprisoned last month for protesting against a government-imposed internet shutdown.

Last year, about 23,000 people were freed over several days in the annual amnesty, according to state media. More than 8,000 were released the previous year.

While this year’s release was higher than 2019, Myanmar’s prisons are still crowded, unsanitary, and lacking in health services.

Social distancing and self-isolation are virtually impossible in prisons over capacity and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the problem of prison overcrowding is neglected during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Source: Amnesty Intl.)