YANGON (Reuters) - Nineteen political prisoners, including allies of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and five Buddhist monks, have been freed in military-ruled Myanmar as part of a general amnesty, an exile group said on Sunday.
The regime announced the release of over 6,000 inmates on Friday after United Nations human rights rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana ended a five-day visit during which he called for the progressive release of “prisoners of conscience.”
On Saturday, 16 political detainees were freed from Yangon’s Insein prison and three from a prison in northern Kachin state, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said on its website www.aappb.org
The Insein group included five Buddhist monks arrested in 2003 and members of Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political groups.
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who began her latest detention in May 2003, is among more than 2,000 people jailed in Myanmar for their political or religious beliefs, rights groups say.
The military junta, which has ruled unchecked since 1962, denies the existence of any political prisoners, saying all detainees have committed crimes.
State-owned MRTV said on Friday the prisoners were being released for the “social consideration of their families” and to take part in elections promised for 2010, part of a seven-step “roadmap to democracy.”
Western governments dismiss the roadmap as a charade, and human rights groups accuse the regime of seeking to eliminate all political opposition ahead of the election.
Special courts have sentenced scores of dissidents to lengthy prison terms of up to 65 years in recent months.
The most prominent activists have been sent to the furthest corners of the country, making it almost impossible for relatives to deliver food and medicine to them, raising the possibility of the prisoners dying behind bars.
Among those released on Saturday was Thet Wai, an NLD official in Yangon who was sentenced to two years in jail in 2008 for reporting incidents of forced labor to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an NLD spokesman said.
Three other NLD members were freed from Myitkyina Prison in northern Kachin state.
They included Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, an NLD MP elected in the 1990 election that his party won only to see the military ignore the results. He had been in prison since 1991.
Editing by Darren Schuettler and Sanjeev Miglani