YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s government began releasing dozens of political prisoners on Monday as Barack Obama arrived for the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the former dictatorship.
Sixty-six prisoners were scheduled to be freed, two-thirds of them dissidents, according to prison officials and activists.
They included prominent figures such as Myint Aye, a senior Prison Department official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A third of those released were former military intelligence personnel who fell afoul of the junta, according to the 88 Generation Students political group.
Myint Aye is arguably the most prominent dissident left in Myanmar’s gulag. He was one of dozens of activists arrested on what Amnesty International says were trumped-up charges and convicted in secret courts on flimsy evidence or confessions extracted under torture.
A former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, he was arrested for the ninth time in August 2008 for his alleged role in the bombing of an office belonging to a junta-backed political organization.
Myint Aye confessed to the bombing after military intelligence officers forced him to watch the torture of his co-accused, said his lawyer.
“I know they freed us just because of President Obama’s trip,” Yan Shwe, who was convicted with Myint Aye, told Reuters in a telephone interview shortly after his release from Kale Prison in northwest Myanmar.
“I thank him for this but frankly speaking we shouldn’t have been sent to prison all along since all these were false accusations.”
Four political prisoners were released from Kale Prison, but about half a dozen more remain inside, said Yan Shwe.
International human rights groups accused President Obama of ignoring abuses in Myanmar and Cambodia while honoring them with his first presidential visit since his re-election.
Obama denied his visit to Myanmar was an endorsement of the country’s government, but rather an acknowledgement of the progress made towards democratization and abandoning its pariah status earned during 49 years of military rule, he said during a news conference in Thailand on Sunday.
In a further sign of reform, the government will also permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume prisoner visits within the country, said a Myanmar government press release issued late on Sunday.
The government also plans to “devise a transparent mechanism to review remaining prisoner cases of concern by the end of December 2012.” (Additional reporting by Andrew Marshall; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alex Richardson)