January 4, 2012 / 12:32 PM / 8 years ago

Myanmar freed only 12 political prisoners, group says

Prisoners come out from Insein prison after authorities released them, while their families wait outside, in Yangon, January 3, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Only a fraction of the estimated hundreds of political detainees in Myanmar were among about 900 prisoners released this week, a leading pro-democracy group said Wednesday, in an amnesty by a nominal civilian government trying to end decades of economic sanctions.

Around a dozen political detainees out of as many as 600 were released, Naing Naing, a senior official from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party told Reuters.

A civilian government that took power in March with the blessing of a military that has ruled the country since 1962, freed 230 activists in October, going a long way towards meeting a demand by the West for the release of all political detainees to have sanctions lifted, or at least reviewed.

Momentum for a scaling back or even ending sanctions gathered pace with the October amnesty and a visit to the country by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December.

Trade embargoes, which were put in place over the past two decades due to the country’s poor human rights record, have left Myanmar in isolation and squeezed its fragile economy.

The new government is trying hard to improve its tainted image and engage with the West to normalize ties, but some experts say it could be concerned that some of the prisoners, particularly ethnic rebel leaders, might pose a security threat if freed.

President Thein Sein on Monday commuted death sentences to life in prison and cut the terms to be served by other prisoners in a gesture to mark the day when the country formerly known as Burma gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

A senior official from Yangon’s Insein prison told Reuters that more than 900 people had been freed on Tuesday from that jail alone.

The Home Ministry in November arranged for the relocation of several prominent political detainees to facilities closer to their families and said others would be freed “gradually,” without giving any timeframe.

Reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane

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