Myanmar announced a sweeping prisoner amnesty on Monday in an apparent bid to fulfill President Thein Sein’s vow to free all political inmates by the end of the year.
The release is expected to begin Tuesday and include most of the 240 people rights groups say are held or facing trial under draconian laws, including many accused of protesting without permission.
Announcements of the amnesty relayed on state television did not say how many prisoners were due to be freed, but a statement by a presidential spokesman said the amnesty will include political inmates as well as detainees awaiting trial.
Rights campaigners recently estimated that some 40 political prisoners remained behind bars after several earlier amnesties granted by Thein Sein, while another 200 people were thought to be facing trial on new charges.
A statement posted on social media by Thein Sein’s spokesman Deputy Minister Ye Htut said the pardon applies to those charged with unlawful association, treason, or libel, or under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act which bars journalists from spreading “false news.”
It also applies to those held under Section 18 of the Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession, a 2011 law under which demonstrators can be jailed for protesting without government permits and which has provoked criticism from rights groups and nongovernmental organizations.
“All cases under investigation under those charges will be closed,” the statement said, but warned that future violators would not be exempt from punishment.
“This amnesty will not cover those who commit these charges after Dec. 31, 2013.”
Bo Kyi, a senior official from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar and member of a panel appointed by the president to assess cases of political detention, told Reuters news agency 38 people in jail and 192 facing trial or under investigation would be freed for a total of 230 releases.
Some of the prisoners that rights groups consider political detainees may not be covered under the amnesty because they have been convicted of other crimes, such as murder or desertion.
Thein Sein has released more than 1,000 political prisoners as part of a number of reforms he has enacted since coming to power in 2011 after five decades of military misrule.
While on a visit to the U.K. in July, he pledged to free all political prisoners by the end of the 2013, in part to address concerns by the U.S. and other Western nations about his commitment to change.
Rights groups have welcomed the releases but raised concerns about fresh arrests under the same charges, saying they discredit any government commitment to ridding the country of political prisoners.
They have also voiced alarm about activists re-arrested shortly after their release on presidential pardons, accusing authorities of adopting a “catch–release–catch again” policy in a bid to silence activists.
Previous releases have been a major factor in decisions by Western nations to ease sanctions imposed because of Myanmar’s poor human rights record and undemocratic rule under the former military regime.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.